A funny thing happened during my interview with BBC.COM. The journalist asked me a question and I began my answer with “Um…” Normally that wouldn’t be a big deal. But she was calling for my advice on how to avoid verbal filler.
That truth is “Um” is my default non-word when I’m organizing my thoughts. I usually reserve “Um” and other non-words for relaxed conversations with friends. But, even when I’m conscientious, sometimes a filler word or phrase slips into my speech. (See above)
Over the past 10 years I’ve noticed more verbal filler in casual and formal speech. It’s not my mission to rid the world of it. I have no illusions about doing that. But, verbal filler – used repeatedly and excessively – is a serious problem. It weakens executives’ and presenters’ credibility and effectiveness in the workplace or on the stage. It makes bright, talented people come across as lacking intelligence or enthusiasm. It can change the trajectory of a promising career.
Here are the key points I made in the BBC.COM article, The Secret to Stopping Your ‘ummms’.
The 90% Rule
People are surprised that I don’t help clients totally eliminate verbal filler from their speech. Instead, I teach them the 90% rule for verbal filler:
Eliminate 90% verbal filler from your presentations and business conversations. The goal is to present a well-thought-out message but not sound over polished. If you use a filler word here and there, you will still be perceived as prepared and credible.
Typically people use more verbal filler in their speech than they realize. So, before you go about reducing it by 10%, find out what your favorite words, sounds, and phrases are.
- Filler Words – like, so, and, basically, actually, literally
- Filler Sounds – um, uh, ah, mm
- Filler Phrases – “I think that”, “you know”, “what I’m trying to say is” “in terms of”, “that being said”
What Triggers Verbal Filler?
- When you are asked a question and must answer on the spot, but your thoughts are not well prepared or organized.
- When you make up your answer as you go. You need an extra second to find the right words to say; you get it by using filler words, phrases or sounds.
- When you are running out of allotted time and feel pressure to finish what you were saying…fast. This often happens in meetings.
- When you try to sound like an expert. You use filler words to buy time to find exactly the right – and more impressive – word. This often backfires and you just sound unsure of yourself.
- At the beginning or end of sentences. These are common trouble points because you may be thinking about what to say next.
- Delivering the introduction, conclusion and any complex part of a presentation. These parts of your speech require more practice and attention. They can trip you up when you are in front of an audience.
How to Stop Dumping Verbal Filler into your Speech
Tip #1 Identify the non-words, phrases, and sounds you use. Make a list and don’t worry how long it is. Solicit feedback from friends and colleagues, too.
Tip #2 Analyze where you use verbal filler. Identify the situations in which you use excessive verbal filler. Do you use it all the time? Or does it show up in specific situations?
Tip #3 Video tape yourself in a variety of situations such as meetings, conversations and presentations to raise your awareness. Then review the video to see where verbal filler pops up and what words or phrases you over depend on. Also, watch how your facial expressions change as you are saying them. You may look confused or sound less confident. If you don’t want to video tape yourself, you and/or a friend can keep a paper tally on how often you use verbal filler.
Tip #4 Use a “powerful pause” of one or two seconds to allow your speech to catch up to the thoughts in your head. As I say in the BBC.COM article, “It is a matter of training yourself to tolerate a pause and telling yourself that you will not lose people’s attention or respect. Also, pausing for a quick second or two can be helpful to your listeners. Audiences process information slower than speakers and need a second or two to catch up.”
Tip #5 Be “fully present” by avoiding distractions. It makes it easier to speak more coherently. No phone or browsing the Internet. Stay entirely engaged with your listeners and focus on your words. This also helps you manage anxiety if you are prone to presentation jitters.
Tip #6 Use bridging phrases instead of verbal filler. Transition to a new thought using a planned word or phrase to bridge to your next idea. I can’t count the number of times I used this technique on stage when I momentarily lost my place and didn’t want the audience to notice. Also, bridging is a good way to buy time while your organize your thoughts when asked a question and need to answer it immediately. “This is something to consider…” “As a matter of fact…” “You know, as I think about it…” are a few examples. You should develop at least 10 bridging phrases and practice them aloud so they sound natural and spontaneous.
What to Expect
As you read at the start of this article, you shouldn’t shoot for perfect results. But, once you commit to reducing verbal filler, you will catch yourself more often and develop better habits over time. Whether it takes 30 days, several months or longer depends on how much effort you are willing to invest. You’ll need support and continual reinforcement because you’re dealing with old habits that won’t go down without a fight. Be vigilant and stay motivated.
Along with allowing yourself ample time, remember this: speech is your currency for getting ahead in the world. It’s far too valuable to be a dumping ground for verbal filler.