Imagine spending hours preparing and refining a presentation so that your word choices connect with your audience and keep them focused on your key message.  Now picture yourself delivering a clean and insightful presentation, only to find out that your words didn’t “land” as you had intended and worse, your audience perceived you as aggressive rather than confident. Why? According to new research, your focus was on the “content” words – nouns, adjectives, verbs –  which reveal less about an individual’s personality or state of mind than “function” words.

As the image above shows, “function” words are the pronouns and prepositions in a sentence. The clearest example may be the difference between “and” and “but.” These findings are the result of over ten years of research by James Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin. In his new book, The Secret Life of Pronouns: What our Words Say About Us, Pennebaker explains that there are about 500 function words in the English language and 150 of them are the most common. He says that function words “help shape and shortcut language.” While they only comprise .5% of the entire English dictionary, they account for 55% of what we speak, hear and read (source:

A couple of interesting findings:

  • A depressed person uses “I” more often than a happy person
  • People who are lying use “no,” “none,” and “never” more frequently
  • Couples who use similar language tend to stay together longer
  • It’s difficult for us to notice the function words we use in regular conversation

What does this mean for presenters?  Your attention to the use of “I” vs. “we,” and “my” vs. “our” will help you make the right impression on your audience.

– Barbara