Does My But Look Too Big Here?

Roughly 100% of males in committed relationships know to steer completely clear of a question like this one. I choose my spelling carefully, however, as we are talking about a different trap. The “but trap” could send to our keisters any of us who write or speak in public.

I don’t have any statistics to back up the advice I’m about to impart. I Googled any number of combinations of the words “but” and “speech” and “communication” and found only random admonitions that happened to contain the word. So here’s hoping that this humble article becomes a viral authority on why to avoid one of the world’s most frequently used conjunction.

When you utter that three-letter word, it might be all your audience hears or reads. It is the hardest stop of all hard stops because it almost always sends a sentence in reverse. It was good, but then it was bad. Or it signals disagreement: I know you think that, but you’re wrong.

Few words are this capable of stopping audience members in their tracks, and while it can be used to good effect, it rarely is. More often, its usage and its consequences are unintentional.

It’s also not an elegant word. “B” is one of the harder consonants, the short “u” is an unrefined sound, and words that end in “t” are usually devoid of rhythm or meter.

You would think that it would be easy to avoid and therein lies your challenge for the day.

The preceding sentence that you just read warrants a bit of study; I composed it with intention. If I were on auto-pilot, I probably would have written or said it this way: You would think that it would be easy to avoid, but it’s not.

At a minimum, I could simply swap out the b-word:

You would think that it would be easy to avoid; however, it is not.

Although you would think it would be easy to avoid, it is not.

The first alternative requires a semi-colon when written or a slightly longer pause when spoken, and either one of them is worth the effort to use a more elegant word.

Better still is to employ the “and” or the “Yes and” strategies. “And” is more forward, more collaborative, less combative. It provides positive energy and masks the fact that you are about to disagree. I have intentionally employed it twice now: in the sentence we are deconstructing and in the one immediately above, where I could have used a “but” after “energy” and chose not to. (I just did it again here.)

The “yes and” construction is great for debate, especially if you are before an audience and need to take issue with something. Let’s create an example:

You: All of these changes will help promote a friendlier and warmer office environment. Are there any questions?

Audience member: Instituting these changes will require extra shifts and long hours and I don’t think that will be good for morale.

You: There will be some upfront costs, but we think they will be worth it.

You, take two: Yes, there will be some upfront costs and we think they will be worth it.

The “yes and” technique has more energy and feels more positive. Even if you are contradicting someone, it doesn’t feel as combative.

In written form, this is easier to pull off because you can take the time to compose a solid “yes and” sentence. And while it is a bit more challenging to do when taking questions before a live audience, there is tremendous incentive to try. Start the process while listening: as you process the question and formulate your response, commit to the first word of your response being “yes.” Your impulse might be to make it a “yes but,” and you need to resist that. You need to think “yes and.”

Not only will this sound more conciliatory (even if it’s not), it will also set a good pace for your answer. Starting with a “yes” might have you repeating some of the questioner’s words and paraphrasing is good for both you and your audience. After your paraphrase, you could simply pivot with “The issue is one of…” and then make your counterpoint.

There are myriad ways you can employ this, and it all starts with awareness and practice. Practice live Q&A by seeking common ground that will provide an opportunity for a “yes and” instead of a “but.” And after writing anything — analysis, essay, blog post, email — perform a search for “but” and scrutinize every one of them. Some of them might be necessary and some of them might be effective — as I mentioned up top, you can certainly grab attention with a strong and assertive “but” followed by a deliberate pause.

This short article was a great opportunity to practice what I preach, as by my count I found 13 occasions in which I could have used “but” and resisted (make that 14). I like how my prose sounds when I do this and I like choosing more elegant words when speaking live. I think it will make me happier, live longer, and reach true fulfillment.

But I digress. Oops.


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