What to Do When You “Don’t Know What to Say”

Speaking too soon

Some people talk too soon, some too late, some too much, some too little. Oh yes, and there are those who talk too loudly, too softly, or too close (in your face).

One of the most common regrets I heard in my clinical practice was from patients who felt that they didn’t have the right word at the right time. Something had happened — usually an offensive comment had been made by another person — and they didn’t know what to say, at least in the moment. Sometimes they’d figure out the right words about three hours later. Others couldn’t imagine a good repost even after three weeks.

There are too many ways to go wrong in everyday conversation and even more in public speaking, especially if you don’t have much to contribute. Adlai Stevenson II told the following story at the Princeton Senior Class Banquet in 1954. It seems that a young and none-too-impressive new member of the British House of Commons approached his party leader and Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli:

“Now, Mr. Prime Minister, I’ve just come to the House; do you think it would be well if I participated actively in debate?” And the Prime Minister looked at him appraisingly for a moment and said, “No, I think it would be better if you did not. I think it would be better if the House wondered why you didn’t speak rather than why you did!”

Even though none of us have had the benefit of Disraeli’s wise counsel, most of us have thought of ourselves as Disraeli did of the young member of Parliament: that we’d embarrass ourselves by opening our mouths. Well, sometimes we will and certainly we all have done it in the past. But few will remember our gaffes and there is no chance of making an impression that is clever, wise, or enlightened without actually saying something. No amount of potential eloquence does us any good if we always have the mute button on.


I’ve made some unfortunate comments myself.

When I was still in school I visited a cousin whose mother had died after a long and especially gruelling struggle with cancer. I extended my condolences, of course. But, as so often happens during such visits, we got to talking about other things. It wasn’t long before I mentioned some minor misfortune that had recently happened to me, characterizing it as a “fate worse than death.” Oops. Too late to suck it back in, no way to un-ring the bell. I apologized, of course, and my cousin didn’t take it badly, thank goodness. She was dealing with the real thing, death itself, not something trivial and stupid such as my comment.

Tactless remarks happen, as uncomfortable as they are. But, as I said earlier, we more often find ourselves wondering why we “didn’t know what to say.” Some people simply are more fluent than others. Their wittiness comes naturally. They also have the confidence to deliver a line that others might keep to themselves.

While I can’t give you a natural eloquence, I do have a few suggestions to increase your chance of saying the right thing at the right time; and avoiding the wrong one:

      1. Make a recording of yourself in conversation. There is nothing like actually hearing yourself to discover what might be imperfect about the way you speak. Yes, it could fuel your self-consciousness temporarily. But the project of self-improvement rarely comes without some courage and some pain.
      2. Learn to tell at least one joke that isn’t dirty or politically incorrect.
      3. Cut out the following: “uh,” “um,” “like,” and “you know.” Limit how often you say “awesome.” And never put these words altogether: “Uh, you know, like, um, it was awesome!” Don’t say “fail” when you mean “failure” and “reveal” when you should use “revelation.” You will automatically sound 20% more intelligent once all this is accomplished.
      4. Wait a bit before speaking, at least some of the time, to give yourself a chance to formulate what you have to say. Conversation isn’t a race to be the fastest person to respond. If you are clever you will automatically say some quick and witty things. Don’t make it into a competition.
      5. If you expect someone to put you down (usually because he has in the past) prepare some comebacks in advance. There are even books on this sort of thing, so you don’t have to be original. Don’t forget, however, that sometimes the best put down is silence; and ending the relationship will occasionally be a necessary remedy.
      6. Try to sound au courant (a French expression meaning “up to date”or “fully informed”). A good start would be to read something other than an internet story on the progress of Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy.
      7. Learn some new words. Thirty Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary has been around since 1942 and is a worthy place to start.
      8. Don’t circumambulate (circle the idea that you are trying to express). Get to the point relatively quickly so as not to lose your audience.
      9. In general, especially if speaking in public, wait until you have the attention of others. Trying to speak over people is frustrating. Asking conversation partners to stop texting probably should happen much more often than it does.
      10. Most people who are nervous tend to rush what they have to say. Instead, think of your oral communication as if it were the painting of a landscape, where the words become the foreground and the silence becomes the background. You need some silence to put your words into relief.
      11. Consider going to Toastmasters. It is an organization whose meetings are “learn-by-doing” workshops “in which participants hone their speaking and leadership skills in a no-pressure atmosphere.” And they’ve been doing it since 1924.
      12. One last piece of advice comes from an anonymous author:

Be careful of the words you say,
Keep them short and sweet.
You never know, from day to day,
Which ones you’ll have to eat.

The cartoon is called Conversation by Richard Melo da Silva, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.