11/11/2011 04:00 pm ET | Updated Jan 11, 2012

In Search of, Like, Eloquence: Language Zen for College Grads

Graduating seniors, I don't have to tell you it's a tough job market out there. But if you're ready for some hard work, I'm going to give you an edge over almost everyone else in your age group -- maybe over most people in any age group these days.

That gift is the gift of eloquence -- along with 20 or 30 IQ points and innumerable style points that are associated with it.  

Here's the beginner phase:  Drop the word like

Most of the time, you're using it pointlessly. You're using like as a placeholder, or as a shortcut.

Let's take a look at how you've been using it in everyday life:

You say, "My brother was, like, 'I'm going to leave now.'" You should have said, "My brother said 'I'm going to leave now," or perhaps "My brother was thinking he should leave."  You instead used a sloppy shortcut that only made you seem less literate.  

You say, "My doctor was, like, 12." You should have said, "My doctor seemed about 12."

You say, "I'm thinking of, like, getting some food." You should have said, "I'm thinking of getting some food."  The like was a stutter, a stammer, a placeholder while you gathered your thoughts.

And by using such teen Valley-speak, or Kardashian-speak, you dropped your IQ, in the minds of others, by no less than 20 points.  If you've got an IQ of 110, you now seem to be in the bottom half. If you've got an IQ of 140, your giftedness is mostly lost on others.  

You struggle to believe this, because even 50-year-olds freely drop like like breadcrumbs in the forest. Trust me, those old fogies are doing themselves a disservice; but at least they're not trying to establish a career, so the stakes aren't as high for them.  

Here's the issue:  If you're using the world like when it's not called for, your brain is scattered, and you're not being present in the moment.  You need to take a deep breath, slow your mind and your tongue down, and gather your thoughts. 

Now, when you come to a point where you don't know what to say, say nothing!  Exploit the power and drama of the pregnant pause before speaking again.  The energy you project in saying, "I'd love to....[silence] you for coffee" is infinitely more powerful than the energy in saying, "I'd love to, like, meet you for coffee."

Plan on needing at least six months to purge useless likes from your system.

Try to go cold turkey on the word altogether if it helps you with the purging. Maybe stop saying "I like beer," and start saying "I love beer," if necessary or appropriate.  Stop hitting "like" on Facebook, just to avoid falling back into old patterns.  

After six months of your head hurting, and after endlessly popping quarters into the flub jar for saying like needlessly, you'll notice a marked improvement -- and better yet, you'll feel more mentally present and alert.  Trust me, employers and family members and prospective love interests will notice.

Now it's time for you to move to the intermediate phase of eloquence: Stop saying uh or um.

The same principle applies.  You're only muttering because you think that a mumbled uh is more acceptable than a momentary pause. You're quite wrong, it's the opposite, really. 

Don't kick yourself when you say uh -- just make a mental note that you need to take a deep breath again and slow your thoughts down.  Ironically, by slowing yourself down, you will seem less slow to others.  

After another six months, you will be ready for the advanced phase. Drop the word well, even when you're beginning a sentence.

Of all the many placeholders that we babble, well is the least problematic and the most defensible, as some sentences almost sound wrong if they aren't inaugurated with well. Watch your favorite TV show, especially a sitcom, and you'll notice that well kicks off most sentences.

But using well as an opening word, as a clearing of the throat, is a bit like the way a cartoon character runs in place before he takes off running. It's squandered and dissipated energy.  It lacks power and authority.

And if you tend to start sentences with well, you know, you can be certain that you're just spinning your wheels in neutral, in a mildly irritating way, while your brain fumbles in the dark to locate first gear.  The Great Communicator Ronald Reagan got away with this, but no one accused him of being a rocket scientist, and he had a lot more detractors in his day than you'd realize based on all the airports and buildings that bear his name now that nostalgia has defeated skepticism.  

Give yourself permission to pause, nay, force yourself to pause, until you know what you're going to say, then just say it.  And if you really need an opening word, try switching out from well to so or to now.  Choosing to make such a switch, within the moment, at least makes you more mentally present. And this displays a far more commanding energy than if you're reflexively and subconsciously spitting out well.  

The bombastic cormer Disney CEO Michael Eisner, when he was on top of the world, used to say that, "around here, a strong point of view is worth 80 IQ points."

There's truth to that. But if, uh, someone were to express her opinion, in, like a sort of, well, less than crisp manner, how could her point of view be seen as particularly strong?  

Eloquence is ultimately a zen thing.  It takes a zen mindset to clear out all the internal clatter and express your thoughts in a powerful and grounded way.  So once again, slow yourself down and start the difficult journey of finding an eloquence that's all too rare in our world.  It will give you a head start in your career that you'll thank me for later. 

And next time, I'll give you some more advice you really need to hear, about why middle-aged people who hire young people get annoyed when you confuse your with you're and you and I with me n' you.