Words to Use and Lose in Your Next Job Interview, with Tracy Hooper

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Do you pay close attention to the actual words you use in an interview? We all say, “um” sometimes, but does it really matter? If you feel nervous when meeting with a hiring manager, you might use fillers, disclaimers, or hedge words. According to Find Your Dream Job guest Tracy Hooper, those extra words are making you appear less than confident. If you’re ready to lose the words that sabotage your confidence, Tracy suggests recording yourself, working on losing one hedge word per month, and practicing using positive language. 

About Our Guest:

Tracy Hooper is a former TV news anchor, a professional speaker, and the founder of The Confidence Project

Resources in This Episode:


Find Your Dream Job, Episode 290:

Words to Use and Lose in Your Next Job Interview, with Tracy Hooper

Airdate: April 7, 2021

Mac Prichard:

This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.

I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps you find a fulfilling career.

Every Wednesday, I talk to a different expert about the tools you need to get the work you want.

Find Your Dream Job is brought to you by Top Resume. Top Resume has helped more than 400,000 professionals land more interviews and get hired faster.

Get a free review of your resume today from one of Top Resume’s expert writers. Go to macslist.org/topresume.

When you customize a job application you improve your odds of getting an interview.

And today’s guest says you need to be just as thoughtful about your language

when you speak to a hiring manager.

Tracy Hooper is here to talk about words to use and lose in your next job interview.

She’s a former TV news anchor, a professional speaker, and the founder of The Confidence Project.

Tracy is also the author of the new book, “The New Hello: What to Say What to Do in the New World of Work.”

She joins us from Portland, Oregon.

Well, Tracy, here’s where I want to start, why do the words that we use in a job search matter so much?

Tracy Hooper:

They matter because one of the hallmarks of confidence is using words that are becoming, that are worthy of us, and oftentimes, out of habit we use words that we hear all the time, where they’re a part of our vocabulary, but we never think about whether those words have influence and are impactful. And so, when we’re careful about the words that we use, it can make people think about us differently. They may be more interested in talking with us or interviewing us or hiring us or recommending us or promoting us. Words have a lot of power.

Mac Prichard:

What do you mean, Tracy, when you talk about “becoming words”? What makes a word becoming?

Tracy Hooper:

A word becoming, I mean, it’s a word that gives you agency. For instance, if you used the word “things”- “the most interesting thing,” “the thing that I’m most proud of,” “the thing that I’d like to talk about,” what is that thing? Is it an idea? Is it a project? Is it a success? Is it a program? Patricia Fripp, who was the first female president of the National Speakers Association says, “If it weren’t a thing, what would it be?” And that really makes me think about the words that I choose.

“My most interesting project is…” “I’m most proud of this program.” “I feel confident about…” And then you can fill in the blank and not use the word things.

Another word that might not be becoming is the word so. These are filler words, Mac, that we all know, “Um,” “Like,” “You know,” “Really.” “So” is one of those words and I never knew that that was one of my weak words until I was getting ready to be on a talk show and I sent the topic to the producer, and we had talked about questions. I had sent in a list of questions, and then I was answering them by myself. I put my iPhone on the shelf, (I call it a shelfie), and I pressed record and I practiced a week ahead of time. And I used the word “so” 13 times, in a six-minute mock interview. It was almost as if I was embarrassed in front of myself.

I would never have known that I use that word all the time if I hadn’t heard a recording of it. That’s one of the words that, it’s not terrible, but it doesn’t make you sound eloquent and polished and prepared, those filler words.

Mac Prichard:

Why do filler words have that effect? Why do they harm you?

Tracy Hooper:

It’s interesting. I have worked with a voice coach for some time, her name is Linda Bryce. She’s here in Oregon, and she works with singers and speakers all over the world, and by the way, we’re all speakers. We all speak for a living in some capacity, and Linda says that our biggest fear is that we will be shamed or humiliated, and we will be left out of the crowd and that’s why we use words like fillers because when we get nervous, we stop breathing, and then we can’t access our thoughts, and then we start using words like fillers and hedges and disclaimers. I’ll talk about those as well, and they don’t make us sound strong and we use those because we want to fit in.

For instance, one of those, we’ll move on to hedges if we could; hedges are words like “just,” “kind of,” “a little bit,” “stuff,” “maybe,” “I guess,” “actually.”

How often have you heard someone say, “I actually have an idea about…” “I was actually wondering about…” It’s a filler word because we don’t want to be seen as if we’re coming on too strong. You know, hedges are those words where we want to sound humble or modest but they don’t make us sound confident.

“Just” is another hedge. “Just have a quick question…” “I’m just checking back…” “I’m just a little bit concerned about…” So when we use these words, they don’t make us sound as if we’re confident, and that’s what everyone is looking for. Especially in a job interview.

Mac Prichard:

How can you stop using these words, these fillers and hedges? And let me add to your list, the one I hear a lot is “Sort of.”

Tracy Hooper:

“Sort of.”

Mac Prichard:

“I sort of…”

Tracy Hooper:

That’s a hedge, that’s a hedge.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah, so how can you stop doing that, Tracy?

Tracy Hooper:

Well, one way is to record yourself. Ask a friend or a colleague if you can record your conversation. Say, “I want to improve my communication. Would you mind if I recorded our conversation?” Everyone has a cell phone and they can press record. And it’ll be interesting, when you first make that offer I’m guessing that the person will say, “Oh, I don’t know, this is sort of odd.” But they’ll be curious about their own words to lose, and once you’re in the conversation, you’ll be careful for the first minute or so but once you’re in the conversation you’ll begin to slip and use those fillers, those hedges, those disclaimers. And when you listen back, you’ll be able to see, what are those, so-called, weak words? And that’s the first step, is to find out which ones they are and then be kind to yourself and take 30 days to lose one word.

For instance, if you want to lose the word “just,” that’s the word that you hear most often, practice the power of pause. Instead of saying, “I just have a quick question.” You could say, “I…I have a question about that.” And that way you are consciously pausing and making sure that you’re choosing the words that you want, and by the way, a pause is a great technique in any conversation because it not only gives you a chance to gather your thoughts, but it also gives the listener a chance to understand what you’re talking about. The listener can absorb what you’ve said.

We know what we want to say. Sometimes when we get nervous or anxious, we tend to speak really fast because we want to get it over with, or we don’t pause in between sentences. I was working with a young client, young client, she’s three years out of college, and she was talking so fast that even I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. And I said to her, “Take a break between your sentences. Let there be a space in between your sentences so that you can give the interviewer a chance to ask you the next question or to respond to what you had to say.”

Mac Prichard:

When an interviewer is talking to a candidate who’s using filler words and hedge words, what are they thinking as they hear that candidate speak?

Tracy Hooper:

That’s a very interesting question. Honestly, Mac, they’re probably thinking, “This person sounds like everybody else.” And when we’re in an interview we want to sound unique. We want to sound like ourselves, of course, but we want there to be something distinctive about us, and when we use the same words as everybody else, “kind of, “a little bit,” “sort of,” then we sound like every other candidate.

Here’s an example- I was speaking to someone who had started a website called The Career Contessa and it’s a website about women in work. And I was preparing to be on her podcast and she said, “You know, in the beginning when we developed the website we were lucky…no, we were smart…” And then she carried on and I thought that that was really great. She self-corrected right in the middle of that sentence; she wasn’t lucky. The people who are getting interviews, who are applying for jobs, they aren’t lucky. Their experience, their success, has gotten them to this point. So, the fact that she went from “lucky,” to “we were smart,” I thought, was a great transition for her.

To answer your question, practice the power of pause, and ask a friend or colleague if you could record a conversation. Then you’ll be able to pick up what you hear, because we can’t hear ourselves; we don’t know what we say unless someone points it out.

Mac Prichard:

How can you avoid Tracy, sounding stilted or overly formal when you’re trying to eliminate these filler words, these hedges from your speech?

Tracy Hooper:

Yeah, I love that question. Practice makes progress. Jerry Seinfield, before he ever performed for the first time on the Tonight Show, recorded his 4 minute monologue 200 times. That’s why it sounded so comfortable, as if he were having a conversation with the audience, and in fact, he was. I encourage people to practice all the time. I have something I call a ten penny practice. So, I take ten pennies or coins and put them in my right pocket, and every time that I practice a story or a presentation or a speech, I will move a penny from my right hand into my left hand and put it in my left pocket. Do it again. Practice, right hand, left hand, left pocket, and at the end of a day, I will have practiced that story ten times.

You know, Mac, people need to get their stories down. “Why are you leaving this company?” “What are your big goals?” “What are your plans for the next five years?” We need to be able to answer those questions when we’re in an interview, and I want to say something else that I totally believe in, and that is this- I believe every conversation is an interview. Therefore, when we speak we need to be conscious that people are evaluating us, whether they want to hire us or not, they’re making decisions. We don’t want people to judge us but they do, based on how we present ourselves, both in our language, our behavior, our dress, our civility, our manners.

People are making judgments about us all the time.

Mac Prichard:

I want to talk more about that.

Let’s take a break though, Tracy, and when we come back we’ll continue our conversation with Tracy Hooper, who will continue to share her advice about words to use and lose in your next job interview.

The words you choose matter, especially in your resume.

Are you using the right language? Ask an expert.

Go to macslist.org/topresume.

A professional writer at Top Resume will review your resume for free.

Go to macslist.org/topresume.

You’ll get tips to make your resume clear and easy to understand.

And if you don’t want to revise your resume yourself you can hire Top Resume to do it for you.

Go to maclist.org/topresume.

Now, let’s get back to the show.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Tracy Hooper.

She’s a former TV news anchor, a professional speaker, and the founder of The Confidence Project.

Tracy is also the author of The New Hello: What to Say, What to Do in the New World of Work.

She joins us from Portland, Oregon.

Tracy, I want to talk about words that we should be using, but before we do that, how long do you find it takes someone to get rid of these fillers and hedge words and other words that we should avoid?

Tracy Hooper:

Well, psychologists tell us that it takes 30 days to start a new habit or to break a bad one. I was talking to a friend the other day and she said to her daughter, “May I give you some feedback about your language?” And the daughter, who’s 32, said, “Yes.” And her mother said, “I hear you saying, ‘You know’ a lot.” And the next two weeks later her daughter came over to her mom’s house, and my friend Mary noticed that she wasn’t using the word “You know.” And she said to her, “Maddie, I don’t hear you saying that anymore. What did you do?” And Maddie said, “I decided. I made a decision, I was going to lose that word.”

That’s why I tell people to pick a word a month. Is it “just?” Is it “kind of?” Is it “um?” I did a program two days ago and I listened to it, the host was kind enough to send me the link, I used the word um many more times than I thought I did. We can’t know what we sound like unless we hear it. I would say be kind to yourself, give yourself a month per word or phrase.

Mac Prichard:

Well, let’s talk about words you should use. What comes to mind, Tracy?

Tracy Hooper:

I’m going to give you some before and afters, Mac. This is might be helpful. The next group of words to lose are called disclaimers, so “correct me if I’m wrong,” “you’ve been doing this a lot longer,” “what do I know?” “I could be overthinking this.”

Let me give you some choices. Instead of saying, “Correct me if I’m wrong.” You could say, “Let me know if I heard this correctly.”

Instead of, “Oh, you’ve been doing this a whole lot longer.” You could say, “In my experience.”

“What do I know?” You could say, “Here’s my perspective?”

“I could totally be overthinking this.” Or “Let’s dig deeper.”

2 more. “This is just my 2 cents.” Or, “What if we try this?”

“This may sound like a crazy idea.” Or, “Let’s consider…”

There’s an alternative for every one of these disclaimers and it’s empowering. When people think about saying, “correct me if I’m wrong.” You could say, “Let me know if I heard this correctly.” It sounds so much stronger and here’s the…how do I say this, it becomes a virtuous cycle. You become more confident with your words, then people respond to you differently because you seem more confident, and then you act more confident because you’re getting that kind of feedback. It’s really a fantastic opportunity to change your thoughts up, your conversation, your language in a short period of time.

I will tell you, if you do need, instead of saying, “you’ve been doing this a lot longer.” If you’re not sure what you’re going to say, if you need a setup line, you can always say, my mother uses this, “This thought is 30 seconds old.” And then launch right into whatever comment you want to make. So, it’s not a completely formed thought or idea but you still have enough confidence to go forward with that idea that you have.

Other words to use are, “I’m a quick learner.” “my strength is…” “people see me as…” That’s a third-party proof for you to say, “People see me as a strong leader.” “My manager thinks of me as the person who can shepherd the team through the next project.”

I worked with a woman one time who said, “I’m known as the manager who trains her people so well that other managers come in and hire them away.” And I said to her, “That’s terrible, don’t you hate losing all of those good people?” She said, “Not at all. My job is to train people and lift them up and get them ready for their next role.” But it was impactful when she said “People see me as…” Or, “I’m known as the manager who…”

Ready for some more?

Mac Prichard:

I am but first, let me ask you this about disclaimers. I think that people use these in part, as you indicated in the first segment, to express humility. They don’t want to come across as arrogant or perhaps as overly confident, which can be important in a job interview. What would you say to a listener who’s concerned about expressing arrogance and coming across as arrogant?

Tracy Hooper:

I think it’s all about tone, Mac. I think it’s about how we say it. If I said, “I’m an expert at leading large global teams,” you can look at my body language and you can hear my tone of voice like, “Look at me.” But if I say, “I’m an expert at leading large global teams. Let me give you an example.” Now, that sounds confident, not cocky.

Is that helpful?

Mac Prichard:

That’s very helpful. So, let’s talk more about words that express confidence and why do they work with job interviewers?

Tracy Hooper:

Because people want to hire people who are not only competent but they want to be confident about their skill set or their managerial ability. And it’s exciting to hire someone who not only has the skills to do the work but has the confidence to be shepherd it along and it’s good to be humble. We all want to be aware of our gifts and grateful for them, and we also need to make sure that people can feel confident in our ability to do the job, so when we use these words in an interview, it gives other people confidence in us. They see us as calm and eloquent and optimistic, and who wouldn’t want to hire someone like that?

Mac Prichard:

Agreed. What other techniques do you recommend, Tracy, to show that confidence in a job interview and avoid language that might make you appear weak or indecisive?

Tracy Hooper:

Well, I mean, on the outside I think it’s important to wear clothes that you feel good in and be completely prepared for the interview, doing as much research as you can about the person who’s interviewing you and the company that you’re interviewing for. And then the language is the icing on the cake because if you are prepared for an interview, and I’m all about…I have the superstition of a baseball player, you know, they tap their cleats before they take a swing at the next ball? I power posed before this interview. I power pose before every presentation I give, where you put your hands on your hips, and you stand there like Wonder Woman or Superman.

It was researched by Dr. Amy Cuddy and there’s been some controversy about whether it’s effective in helping you feel more confident, but it certainly helps me to feel ready. I believe that when your posture is full and big, how much space you take up indicates to other people and yourself how confident you are, so I power pose. I have a folder that I call my “attagirl folder” and those are letters and emails that I’ve gotten from people who’ve told me how they’ve appreciated our work together. I read those to get myself psyched for an interview, like this or even a presentation.

Back to language, how do I say this? Language is really a way for us to differentiate ourselves from other people, and it’s exciting for people to be surrounded by people who feel good about themselves, and I don’t think it’s a fake it til you make it kind of thing. I think there’s something to be said for what Amy Cuddy says, “Fake it until you become it.” So, you begin to use these words, until they become a part of your regular vocabulary.

In other words, we learn words in the universe. How often have we heard the word unprecedented? That’s the most popular word that we’re hearing in this past year. There are other words we can use but everyone adopts that because we want to belong to the group, we don’t want to stand out and seem like we’re not…we want to seem like everybody else. But who wants to hire somebody who’s like everybody else?

You’re your unique person, companies want you.

Mac Prichard:

This is almost a lifelong project, isn’t it? Because you’re always improving your language and as the culture changes, you absorb new habits that, perhaps, you need to revisit as well.

Tracy Hooper:

Absolutely, culture is a big driver of why people say and do what they do. I don’t know if you’ve heard the expression, “vocal fry.” It’s when people kind of sit on their vocal folds, very low in their voice, that is definitely a cultural piece. The Kardashians started that kind of affect with their voice and now speech pathologists are dealing with people who have developed nodules on their vocal folds because they have adopted the practice of what’s called the vocal fry and it’s interesting.

It seems popular, it seems cool, but it sounds like everybody else. May I offer to you what I think is the very important part of the conversation, and those are validators. Do we have time to talk about validators?

Mac Prichard:

Absolutely, tell us about validators, Tracy.

Tracy Hooper:

Validators are words like, “Does that make sense?” “Am I being clear?” “Is that okay?” “Do you see what I’m saying?”

We want to get a buy-in from the audience. For instance, if you’re in an interview and you explain something, it’s common to say, “Does that make sense?” “Do you know what I mean?” “Am I being clear?” You know what, even my language, you’re viewers can’t see me, but I tend to move into a powerlessness pose. I curl up a little bit when I use those words.

Instead of saying, “Does that make sense?” You could say, “Do you have any questions?” Instead of saying, “Am I being clear?” You could say, “Do I need to clarify anything for you?”

Or instead of saying, “Is that okay?” You could say, “What are your thoughts?”

“Do you see what I’m saying?” Or, “How is this landing with you?”

These are ways that you can ask someone, on some level, “Does that make sense?” But you can still say, “Do you have any questions?”

Mac Prichard:

I think many people might say that they use phrases like that, especially in a job interview, because they’re looking for agreement, and if they’re in the workplace they want to bring team members along. What would you say to someone who made that point, Tracy?

Tracy Hooper:

I would say that you can bring team members along by saying, “Do you have any questions?” I did work with a big law firm in town and the senior partner said to me, “Listen, we’re in family law, so we’re talking about divorce, alimony, child support; it’s intense and it’s emotional. Sometimes I will say to my clients, ‘Does that make sense?’” And of course, that does make sense to ask that question, but you could also say, “Do you have any questions?” “Is there anything that I could clarify for you?” “I’d appreciate your feedback.” “Tell me what you’re noticing.” And that’s the same message.

And of course, the whole piece about, “I’m sorry,” Mac. Another big issue in our culture. People apologizing all the time, and that’s because you want to seem nice, you don’t want to be confrontational, you don’t want to cause any waves, but if people can think about switching, “I’m sorry,” which is one of those weak words, and of course you need to apologize if you’ve made a mistake or if there’s a misunderstanding or if you want to express empathy, but typically, you can switch from “I’m sorry,” to “Thank you,”

“Thank you for your patience.” “Thank you for your understanding.” “Thank you for your flexibility.” “Thank you for listening.” As opposed to, “I’m sorry I took up so much of your time.”

Mac Prichard:

That’s an excellent point. I’m glad that you brought it up because I think that there’s also a gender issue there, from what I’ve read about the research, often women are more likely to apologize for something, and to your point, you can…saying, “Thanks for your patience or your understanding,” and just moving on, that’s just a much better approach, isn’t it?

Tracy Hooper:

It’s a much better approach, and don’t dwell. For instance, how often do you get an email that starts with, “I’m sorry it took me so long to get back to you.” If you started with, “Thank you for your patience. I wanted to gather all of the data before I sent you this email.” And then move right on into it. Don’t dwell on, “Oh, well, I was on vacation.” “My dog got sick.” No.

Say, “Thank you for your patience.” “Thank you for your flexibility.” And then move on, and by the way, the statistics show that people only read 6 lines in an email. Make it short and don’t spend all of the time apologizing.

Mac Prichard:


Well, I’ve really enjoyed our conversation, Tracy. Now, tell us, what’s next for you?

Tracy Hooper:

What’s next for me is my book, “The New Hello. It was published just recently. What to Say, What to Do in the New World of Work. It is a pocket guide for anyone who wants to feel comfortable living and moving in this new world, both online and in-person because eventually, we will be back out there in the world without masks. Someday. Will we ever shake hands again? I don’t know. But there are lots of techniques and skills in this book that you can carry with you from now and forever. And I’m delighted to share it with you.

Mac Prichard:

I know that people can learn more about your book and about your work by connecting with you on LinkedIn, and if they do that, I encourage them to mention that they heard you on our show.

Tracy, given all of the great advice you’ve shared today, what’s the one thing you want a listener to remember about words to use and lose in your next job interview?

Tracy Hooper:

I will leave you with this, that I believe that elevating your presence, with posture and language and civilized communication, will impact your ability to be seen and heard. And at the same time, people will see you as confident, as eloquent, as calm, as optimistic, as poised. And then it does become this positive cycle of, the more confident you feel, the more confidence other people have in you, and on and on it goes. For that tip, I wish your listeners well.

Mac Prichard:

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Next week, our guest will be Derek Murphy-Johnson. He leads the talent attraction function for KinderCare Education. It’s the largest childcare provider in the United States.

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Join us next week when Derek Murphy-Johnson and I talk about resume hacks that impress human resource directors.

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