Updated: Jun 23
If I answered a question like that, you would probably wonder how prepared I was, how much experience I had and you might even have visions of a Valley girl rather than a professional who’s about to deliver a killer presentation.
Whether we think about it consciously or not, filler words have crept into our speech patterns — some experts say as much as 20% of the time — diluting messages and leading to mistrust. This is on top of the nails-on-a-chalkboard-like response they can elicit for those listening!
Filler, or crutch words and phrases such as “um,” “uh,” “like” and “you know” are called disfluencies and they show up in various iterations in every language. They are used to fill an otherwise silent pause while our speech catches up to our thoughts. We often think faster than we speak and faster than others can digest our ideas as we share them.
“Well, um, the answer is… Like, you know… If you’re uh, like most people… Uh, YES!”
Some situations that cause us to use disfluencies are:
Being nervous. Sometimes we fear a pause or brief moment of silence may indicate we don’t know what to say next.
Divided attention. Think conference calls, when you’re absentmindedly listening while checking your email or quieting your dog.
Being unprepared. You might not know what to say next if you’ve not done your homework.
So, what’s the solution? There are four simple steps that can help you lessen filler words and make your speech stronger and more trustworthy.
Step #1 Identify the problem.
Listen to yourself when you talk. The conference call — a setting we’re all familiar with — is one of the most likely venues for this pesky habit and a perfect forum for self-evaluation. Tally how many filler words you use during a call. You can go as far as recording the call and then listening back to it. Or get a trusted colleague to take note every time they hear you use a filler word.
Experts say the optimum use of fillers is one per minute of conversation. The average person uses five per minute. Chances are, we all could use a little help.
Step #2 Prepare and focus.
If you’re giving a more formal presentation, preparation and practice are key. The more comfortable you feel with the content, the fewer filler words will creep in during your delivery. I rehearse presentations aloud several times until I feel ready to present.
For more casual situations, write down the three main points you want to make to help you stay on track. If you’re on a conference call, resist the temptation to multi-task! Keep notes in front of you and refer to your main ideas when you speak up.
Step #3 Slow down and… Embrace. The. Pause.
Most of us tend to speak too fast. Can you think of the last time you heard someone deliver a speech too slowly? It almost never happens!
Deliberately slow down and allow yourself a pause between thoughts. Even several seconds is acceptable here and there. This may feel unnatural at first but if you pause during your rehearsal and practice, you’ll be comfortable with the pace and brief silences when it’s time to deliver.
Pauses can also help draw attention to an important thought, so take advantage and use them well. You can even smile during a pause to serve as a signal to listen-up and elicit a positive response from the listener.
Step #4 Relax. Breathe.
Even well-practiced public speakers have subconscious nervous habits that make them more likely to use filler words, among other bad habits. Remembering a few tricks before you speak can help.
Take several deep breaths before you start. Breathe in as deep as you can and hold your breath for a couple of seconds. Then release slowly and completely. Repeat a few times. This practice can combat the shallow breathing and shaky voice that your adrenaline may be causing.
Do the “angry lion” face three times before you start. This yoga move can help release tension in the face and neck. Lift shoulders to the ears, scrunch your face as tight as possible and squeeze your eyes shut, then release it all by opening eyes, pressing shoulders down, opening the mouth as wide as possible, sticking your tongue out in your widest “ahhh” while forcefully breathing out with as much sound as you can make. It’s ok if you feel silly — some yogis say this move can even boost confidence!
Force a big smile just before you start speaking and in between thoughts and phrases. This sends positive chemical responses throughout your body and helps you relax.
In the world of texts, emails, social media images and clips, the spoken word isn’t practiced as much as it once was. A quick check-in on habits can go a long way to increasing your effectiveness. Practice makes perfect!
Laura Hunt is president of 1st Degree and has not only given hundreds of presentations and led thousands of meetings, she also leads a team that prepares clients for national and local media opportunities, board meetings and other speaking opportunities. For more information on PR, marketing and communication strategies, visit 1stdegree.com.