Don’t Think of an Elephant (A Way to Improve Your Speaking)

This post is about how the words we use shape our voice and dictate the results we achieve, or don’t achieve. I write this as an essay to myself, as I have for so many years struggled with improving my own verbal communication. At one point in my mid-20’s, I was unconsciously using the filler word “like” two or more times in each sentence I spoke, no doubt sounding like a teenage girl to anyone within earshot. Learning how to improve my speaking has since become an interest for me because it is one of my dull blades that continues to need sharpening.

This learning started when I was a sophomore in college at the University of Minnesota. I was assigned a book in a Theory and Rhetoric class called “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” by George Lakoff. It’s been years since I read the book, but Lakoff’s communication and debate logic has stuck with me since then. Side note: we were also assigned “Rhetoric” by Aristotle which I have since reread multiple times, but that is not the point of this post, just a suggestion for an intriguing read.

In “Don’t Think Like an Elephant,” Lakoff argues that right-wing conservatives in the United States have successfully rewritten the vocabulary around their beliefs so that they can get a more positive emotional response when they debate topics with such deep emotional convictions and such tall barriers separating democrats and republicans, liberals and conservatives. This strategy is effectively known as “framing.”

For example, when Republicans use the term “pro-life,” they easily frame their viewpoint in a morally positive light, while simultaneously taking the upper-hand against the counter argument that is for “abortion.” In a debate so entangled with emotion, this framing and word choice are critical to winning the debate. To further this example, it really wasn’t until Democrats began using the words “pro-choice” and “protecting women’s health” that they could compete in this debate when trying to win the space between the aisle.

Furthermore, and as another simple example, Democrats made the mistake of trying to prove “global warming,” for so many years with little success. It wasn’t until they changed their terminology and framed the issue as “global climate change,” that they began winning the debate (arguably, I know). The list of these terms goes on and on, using two different phrases that mean the same thing but one sounds better than the other, allowing the political party and its representatives to propagate their message more or less effectively.


inceptionTo be clear: I am not promoting Lakoff or any political party in this post. What I am exploring, however, is the importance of language, even the use of one word in a sentence, and its apparent negative or positive consequences. Politics are the easiest example to use because of their polarizing viewpoints and the common debates surrounding them. This concept is easily expressed in Lakoff’s book title, but it is also in the scene of one of my favorite movies of all time, Inception. The scene I am referencing is linked at the bottom of this post (skip to 1:15).

Don’t think of an elephant is the idea that as soon as a word is said, the listener will then become uncontrollably fixated on the word, even though it was specifically instructed for him or her to NOT think of the word. In this case, you simply cannot avoid thinking of an elephant once the word is said.

This concept doesn’t just apply to political debates or really great movies with star-studded casts (eh hem, Inception). It applies to everyday language, persuasion, and relationships. For instance, if I say to my wife without being prompted, “you don’t look fat in those jeans, Hunny, you look great,” then guess what – she is going to think in her head that she looks fat, or at least that I think she does, even though I said she does not.

Here is another example: “I am not a crook,” Richard Nixon. Notice that despite Nixon’s attempt to persuade a positive image, he automatically paints himself in a negative light with the misappropriation of an elephant word, in this case the word “crook” enters our minds even though Nixon is instructing us otherwise. Immediately, we can’t help but think “Nixon = crook.” What if Nixon had said instead, “I am an honest, ethical man?” Would that one statement have changed history as we know it? (Only if you believe in the Butterfly Effect).

This type of language barrier, the misuse of simple words, holds sales people back from closing deals, employees from getting promotions, spouses from growing closer, students from getting the A. It permeates through our identity as we find ourselves making an attempts to clarify what we are or how we believe, often accidentally revealing ideas to our audience that does just the opposite.

There is no easy fix for ensuring you don’t slip up like Nixon did (well, maybe, just don’t break the law, to begin with), but understanding the concept will make you more aware. Furthermore, understanding language and verbal communication mistakes, in general, will make you more effective in life, career, and relationships. But eliminating language barriers such as elephant words is an advanced and ambitious task, so I recommend you stick to an easier first step: eliminating “filler words.”

“Like” and “um” are the most obvious of offenders for filler words, but they actually come in many different forms. I am no stranger to a good filler, as mentioned earlier, so please don’t mistake me for perfect as I explain more. Despite, or maybe because of, my own struggle with filler words,  I can’t help but notice the distraction of my friends and colleagues when a person overuses any single word or phrase. Some of the worst I have heard are “and that” and “ya know.” These two are very Rural Midwestern phrases, but filler words come in many shapes and sizes and are often slipped into sentence after sentence by speakers everywhere around the world. A friend of mine from the middle east used to say “dude” in almost every sentence he spoke.

I am convinced that there are only two reasons why a person uses filler words:

  1. Habit
  2. Nervousness

As for habit, I believe that this is one that is quite easily broken, despite the belief that “old habits die hard.” The best way to break the habit of using a filler word is to ask someone close to you to: first, tell me what my filler words are. Then, secondly, to repeat that word back to me every time I use it. If your habit is to say the word “like,” then ask your partner to repeat “like” back to you immediately after you say it every single time. I guarantee this will help you change your habit. If anything, you will become annoyed at their interruptions.

In regards to nervousness, there are three forms that bring these fillers out. The first is the nervousness that your listener will interrupt you if you do not keep speaking. Your filler word acts as a bridge over a proverbial moat of interruption. Pausing can seem threatening to a speaker who desperately wants to be heard, so instead of pause, he or she inserts a filler to keep the stage. We all want to keep speaking and keep being heard, so we all have tendencies to bridge our thoughts, ideas, or sentences. This is the first and most common type of filler that is manifested in nervousness.

The second kind of nervousness is when we use the filler to begin or end a sentence. This is derived out of the need for comfort. Many speakers end their sentences with, “know what I mean?” I have been guilty of this one too. It is a nervousness that covers up for a lack of confidence in punctuality or crispness. It is the need to conclude, get a response, or end on a dominant note. Many others use this as a way to begin sentences as well, again for the same reasons, a nervousness that is derived from wanting to be heard but not feeling confident in crisply starting their sentence. It is a way to feel comfortable with beginning or ending a sentence.

The last kind of nervousness is the anxiety of speaking (in general) and our desire to have an audience that respects our opinions and our voice. We feel pressure when we speak and that pressure leads to natural human malfunctions (I wrote another post on this) such as nervousness which permeates in filler words. To solve for each of these three aspects of nervousness you must convince yourself the following:

  1. Pausing will make your words more important, not less.
  2. Successful communication is not about “owning” the dialogue. Rather, it is more often about listening or “sharing” the dialogue.
  3. Your listeners deserve more credit. Let them feel your pause and you can be confident that they will not always interrupt you.
  4. Slow down. Consciously slow your breath, your heart, and your mind. This will make you a more effective speaker and communicator.


I realize this is a lot for one post. My intent here was to show you the importance of word choice in verbal communication and to understand the implications of your own speaking style. Sure, there are some extremely advanced concepts to hone, such as “don’t think of an elephant,” but many of us can benefit from the simpler improvements such as eliminating filler words. Regardless of what level of improvement you can obtain today, the point is not to be perfect right away, it is instead to continue seeking improvement. After all, the word improvement derives from a word meaning “profitable.” Heck, improving your speaking could even put more money in your pocket. But what do I know, I am not a crook or anything like that.

Good luck.


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