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How to keep the conversation flowing

...and get your point across effectively.


Whether you engage in an informal conversation at the office, give a formal presentation to the board, or write an email to a business partner, getting your message across effectively is important. To achieve that goal, what you say and write must “have flow”. One key strategy for creating flow is including discourse markers in the right places.


flowing river

What is “flow”?


When we say that a person’s writing or speech has flow, we mean that

  • it is mostly accurate and doesn’t contain errors that we find disruptive.

  • it has varied language, such as different sentence structures and lengths.

  • it has logical content and makes sense on the informational level.

  • it has a good structure and makes sense on the organizational level.

When these conditions are met, we can follow along without too much effort and understand what the writer/speaker is trying to convey.


From the audience’s point of view, good flow means better understanding. It is easier to understand a speech or report that is organized and logical than one that is disorganized and choppy.


For the writer/speaker, good flow means higher effectiveness. If your audience understands what you are saying, your chances of reaching your communication goals increase vastly. As writers/speakers, we have different tools available to ensure better flow and effectiveness. One such tool is the use of discourse markers.


What are “discourse markers”?


Discourse markers are words and short phrases that…

  • link the various parts of what we say or write, so it makes sense to the audience,

  • signal how we feel about what we say, and

  • give clues which make it easier to interpret the information we provide.

A few examples are well, so, I guess, you know, however, unfortunately, actually, and in fact. Further down in this blog, you can find more examples for different purposes.


Why are discourse markers so important?

Signposts
Marco Kaufmann on Unsplash

The short answer is that without them, our speaking and writing sounds choppy and unnatural. It may even be misinterpreted. The following example shows how a string of grammatically correct sentences can sound choppy if not properly linked.


There are a few reasons why I think this is a bad idea. It’s too expensive. It’ll take too long. It won’t get approval.


Now we add a few discourse markers:

There are a few reasons why I think this is a bad idea. First, it’s too expensive. Second, it’ll take too long. In addition, it won’t get approval.


Discourse markers are an important feature of native speaker language. English native speakers frequently use them without consciously thinking about them.


Kurt: Susan, how was your presentation?

Susan: Well, I got off to a great start. At first, I felt confident and everyone paid attention. But then, there was this one guy in the audience who kept interrupting me. That really threw me off…. Anyway, have you spoken to Tom?

Kurt: I have. In fact, I just spoke with him a few minutes ago.


The appropriate, or inappropriate, usage of discourse markers is one of the main distinguishing features between native and non-native speech. If you want to move your communication skills to a level where you can confidently say, “I’m fluent” – mastering their skillful use is crucial.


Terminology and classification


There are quite a few terms that are used to refer to discourse markers – transitions, connectors, fluency markers, discourse particles, etc. – and some inconsistencies regarding their usage. In this blog, the term “discourse markers” refers to words and phrases that fulfill the functions described below. It includes transitions such as “in addition to” and “finally” and discourse particles, such as “well” and “look”.


Discourse markers do not constitute a formal grammatical class, like verbs, nouns, or adjectives. They belong to different word classes. A discourse marker can, for example, be an adverb (well), a conjunction (because), or a prepositional phrase (in fact).


Discourse markers have several things in common:

  • They are used in spoken and written language.

  • They are used in formal and informal situations.

  • We often find them at the beginning of sentences, but other positions are possible:

Well, I’m not sure if that’s possible. That is, however, not possible.

  • They generally don’t change the structure of the basic sentence (syntax).

  • In writing, they are frequently set off by a comma.

  • In speaking, they are stressed in a way that you can hear their separation from the rest of the statement.

  • It’s not uncommon for discourse markers to appear in pairs (or even groups of three):

Well, I mean, we could give it a try.



What functions do discourse markers have?


I like to refer to discourse markers as a “relationship management tool”. This description works in two ways: First, they help manage the relationships within a written or spoken text (internal). Second, they are important for the relationship between writer/speaker on the one hand and the audience on the other hand (external).


Internal relationships: Coherence


Coherence is about how you organize and present your thoughts. Discourse markers create connections between sentence parts, sentences, and paragraphs and make the relationship between them more obvious.


A coherent report, email, speech, or presentation is logical. It’s easy for the reader or listener to follow along and understand. Since they link ideas in a logical manner and move us from one piece of information to the next, discourse markers give your audience a train of thought to follow.


Sales have increased substantially. As a result, we were able to hire two new team members.

We first need to resolve this issue. Then we can move on the next item on the agenda.


An article on the University of Warwick’s website describes discourse markers “as the ‘glue’ that binds together a piece of writing, making the different parts of the text ‘stick together’.”

a person presenting

They don’t just bind together a piece of writing but also what you say during an oral presentation or in simple everyday conversation. They ensure that you don’t lose your listeners as you move from topic to topic and idea to idea.





External relationship: Guidance


In addition to providing coherence, discourse markers fulfill important interactive functions. They signal to the audience how you feel about what you are saying. They convey the emotions and intentions behind your words: caution, hesitation, persuasion, urgency, confirmation, frustration, and more. Because of that, they influence how the reader/listener interprets your words.


Tom is stuck at the airport and won’t be back until tomorrow. So, unfortunately, we’ll have to postpone the meeting to tomorrow afternoon. - Shows regret, possibly upset


Frankly, I am not sure how to handle the situation. - Shows frustration, even annoyance


Particularly in oral conversations, they can be used to adjust or rephrase a statement, if the speaker has the feeling that the message didn’t come out the way it was meant to, was misinterpreted, or didn’t get the expected response.


We must tell the others as soon as possible. I mean, they should know, right?


Flow and effectiveness


Because they help create a logical structure and guide the audience from one idea to the next, discourse markers help create natural flow. When we write or say something that flows well, we have a much greater chance of being understood. We increase our effectiveness.


Discourse markers are part of social behavior. They impact understanding and the direction of an interaction. Knowing how to use them appropriately is a soft skill that is critical for effective communication.


Specific purposes fulfilled by discourse markers

Roadmap


Establishing a logical sequence:


This can be extremely useful in presentations or at the beginning of a meeting. Words and phrases that can be used for sequencing are: first (of all), second, third, next, after that, then, now, finally, etc.


First, I’m going to give you a brief status update.

Then I’ll present an outlook for the next 3 months.

After that, I'll be happy to take your questions.


Adding information or arguments:


Words and phrases that can be used for adding information and arguments are additionally, in addition, besides, furthermore, moreover, what’s more, on top of that, etc.


We've ordered new chairs for the conference room. In addition, we've added a whiteboard.


We’ll send Tom and Mary to the trade show. Both have a lot of experience with that. Besides, they both know the equipment extremely well.


Contrasting or comparing ideas:


Words and phrases that can be used to contrast ideas are however, in contrast, nevertheless, although, on the one hand/other hand, but, even so, all the same, still, yet, while, whereas, etc. These are among the most commonly used discourse markers.


Consumers want instant gratification. However, they don’t want to pay extra for it.


Sometimes we compare ideas to show similarity. Words and phrases that can be used to compare ideas are: likewise, similarly, in the same way, in a similar fashion, or just like.


Consumers want instant gratification. In the same way, they expect to be able to customize what they order.


Spotlighting the cause or consequence of something:

Spotlight

Words that are frequently used to talk about the cause of something are: because, since, or due to.


Due to rising energy prices, we’ve seen our production costs soar.


If you want to talk about the result or consequence of something, you can use the words and phrases: so, as a result, therefore, or consequently.


As a result, we’ll have to increase our product prices across the board.


Indicating an opinion or attitude:


Discourse markers are used to express how you feel about what you’re saying. The following words are used frequently to indicate attitude: unfortunately, to be honest, basically, frankly, sadly, thankfully.


Sadly, he was not able to join us.


Emphasizing something:


Sometimes, you want to stress that you mean what you say. Words and phrases to express emphasis are: as a matter of fact, absolutely, definitely, indeed, in fact, naturally, obviously, undeniably, without a doubt, etc.


We are planning on selling the house. In fact, we are meeting a realtor tomorrow to discuss the best time to put it on the market.


Here are a few more purposes:

  • You can make things clearer by using: in other words, that is to say, I mean, to put it another way.

  • You can generalize by using: in general, overall, generally/broadly speaking, on the whole.

  • You can summarize something by saying: in brief, in short, in sum, in conclusion, to conclude, in a nutshell.

  • You can change the subject by using: now, right, incidentally, by the way.


Spoken and informal discourse markers


In addition, there are many discourse markers that are used primarily in spoken and informal language to guide the flow of a conversation: I mean, well, you know, I guess, oh, look, now, wait, believe me, etc. While these are fine to use in spoken discourse, they should be used sparingly in more formal situations.


Note: The uses highlighted above are examples and don’t constitute a complete list. There are discourse markers and purposes not listed here and there are also discourse markers listed for one purpose that can be used for another.


How can you learn to improve your flow?


When we start speaking a foreign language, we often lack natural ease. We are focused on finding the right words and building correct sentences. But just like other aspects of language and communication, integrating discourse markers can be learned and practiced. Eventually, it will become effortless.


While this is not a topic that requires learning complicated structures, what can prove challenging is the large number of words and phrases that fulfill the various functions described. Here are a few tips for how you can improve your skills:


Awareness:

A crucial step for learning something new is awareness. I hope that this article has helped you become more aware of this topic and its importance.


Discovery:

Pay attention to discourse markers when you read a news article, novel, blog, etc. or when you watch a video or movie. Listen closely to interviews. Take note of when and how discourse markers are used. Try to understand what their purpose is in the context. If you have a proficient or native speaker in your circle of friends or among your colleagues, listen closely to how that person uses discourse markers.


Repertoire building:

Slowly increase your own repertoire of discourse markers. Don’t try to learn all of them at once and don’t study a list of discourse markers out of context. Pick a few and study them as part of sentences and conversations. Get comfortable with them. Then add a few more.


Guidance:

Read or watch "how-to" guides for writing and speaking, or take a class. A good writing class or a good presentation skills seminar should include information and practice on the topic of discourse markers. Work with a language coach who can give you targeted support at your individual language level.


Practice:

Practice and use the newly learned words and phrases. Incorporate them in your writing and speaking. Don’t expect to master this topic in a few short weeks. Learning how to incorporate the appropriate discourse markers to make your speech and writing more effective is an ongoing process that takes time and effort.


Too much of a good thing


In conversations, we frequently need to stall for time to plan what to say next. Long pauses can be awkward and uncomfortable, for both the speaker and the listener. Discourse markers, such as “you know” or “well”, can be used to fill these pauses.


Furthermore, discourse markers at the end of a statement are frequently a sign that the speaker is ready to give up their turn. It’s almost like inviting the other person to speak.

like graph

Informal discourse markers and fillers are a feature of native speech. However, they can easily be overused and make you sound unprofessional. It’s not uncommon for native speakers to include too many “like”, “I mean”, “you know”, etc. into their speech.


Be mindful and use them strategically. Not every pause needs to be filled with a word. Sometimes, keeping a short silence can be more effective. Also consider the culture of your conversation partner. Some cultures are more comfortable with silence and use fewer fillers.


A feature of English only?


English is not the only language to use discourse markers. If you take a moment to reflect on your own native tongue, you can probably come up with a list of discourse markers you use regularly without consciously thinking about it.


In German, you have “Mensch” and “na” and in Spanish you have “mira” and “bien”, to name just a few examples from other languages.


Sometimes, discourse markers from our native tongue get in the way when we speak a foreign language. You may have experienced that yourself. Maybe a transition or filler word from your own language keeps on slipping in when you speak English. That is perfectly normal and called language interference. You can find out more about interference in this blog post.


Interested in learning more about how you can improve your flow and effectiveness through focused coaching? Contact me. I would be happy to discuss your communication goals with you and help you find solutions.





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