Speaking: Why You Need to be Careful with "We"

In his 1946 book “How to be an Alien”, the Hungarian-born British writer George Mikes tells a story about how newly naturalized citizens need to be careful about their use of we, us and ours. After hearing that 22 planes had been shot down, someone asked ‘What – ours?’, to which his English hostess answered icily ‘No – ours’.

When I am coaching speakers or rewriting their speeches I am often reminded of this anecdote when I notice an ambiguous use of “we”. This is surprisingly common, but it can easily confuse or mislead an audience. At the very least it can be distracting because your brain is momentarily occupied trying to work out who “we” are exactly. 

Imagine, for a moment, a product launch keynote by the CEO of the fictional Acme Computers. The CEO admits that “…we need to do more about privacy”. What precisely this means depends entirely on who “we” are. It could mean all of humanity, it could mean the people in the room, it could mean her company or it could mean just her management team. I’ve noticed that this happens most often when people are used to talking to other people in their own field, and often forget that the audience in the room might define “we” differently.

Back home at the Acme campus it will be obvious who the “we” refers to. Even in trade events it will usually mean the company or occasionally the industry. In front of the public these assumptions fail, so speakers can easily forget that to other audiences the meaning is very different.

There’s a simple enough fix that avoids this problem. All you have to do is replace “we” with something more precise, at least the first time you mention a new idea. So, for example, instead of saying “we need to do more about privacy” she could have said “the computer industry needs to do more about privacy” or “me and my management team should do more about privacy”. Later in the same section it will usually be clear enough if you use that qualified “we”. In case of doubt, though, say it explicitly. At the very least, every time you find yourself saying “we”, ask yourself if the meaning will be the same to all audience members.

This same fix also addresses another common speaker quality issue. A strong talk, speech or presentation is concrete, precise and unambiguous. By naming specific people and communities rather than a nebulous “we”, you also make your message more compelling and more memorable. 

In a first draft you might write down ideas that are clear in your head because you know the context, but to listeners who lack the same context the meaning is less clear, a concept I explored in a 2016 blog post Speaking: The Song in Your Head. But in the testing phase you should be questioning all the assumptions and be especially careful not to assume that the audience is on your team.


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If you want help to make your speaking more effective and less stressful you can contact me by email at speaker@andrewhennigan.com, by phone on 0046 73 089 44 75 or through social media. I can help with any part of the process -- building confidence, developing a strategy, crafting powerful content and mastering effective delivery. For groups I can also provide both inspiring lectures and result-focused workshops. And, of course, if you need a ghost writer to script your content I can help with that, too!


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