Five Strategies To Rid Your Speech of, Like, Verbal Fillers

Written by Tiffany Adams, CELI President. Click here for national publication of article.

Reader’s Question: I was recently informed during a review that I use the words, like and kind of, excessively when I speak and it’s distracting to others.  How I can change this habit that I have unknowingly developed?

Thanks to our digital world where we are communicating more from behind screens and engaging less in real time, face-to-face encounters, bad habits are forming.  Verbal fillers (um, like, well, kind of, uh, ah, stuff, you know) undermine our credibility as thoughtful conversationalists or eloquent orators.  Why?  They scream to the world, “I’m lost! I’m in trouble! I’m not confident about my message!”  They are like empty calories in our diet that may self-pacify, but offer no value.  We insert these “verbal hiccups” into our speech to allow our brain time to catch up with our mouth.  Some mistakenly believe verbal fillers are only used by the younger generation, but they are prevalent across all generations.  I know a middle-aged teacher who consistently asks her students, “You know what I mean?”  She has no idea that she is detracting from her own lesson.

Your speech is critical to the impression you leave on others, and therefore, impacts your potential to influence.  We fool ourselves by thinking we will miraculously self-correct when a high pressure situation (critical meeting or interview) presents itself.  On the contrary, this is the time that our bad habit rears its ugly head even more.  Try these five strategies to break your habit:

1)      Pause – Gathering your thoughts by inserting brief silences is what Ralph Waldo Emerson had in mind when he concluded, “The most precious things in speech are the pauses.”  Silence is golden and the pause is your friend.  Well-timed pauses add impact and draw attention back to you.  We are delusional in thinking that verbal fillers serve as useful placeholders to ponder or as an effective strategy in discouraging interruption from others.

2)      Recruit an Accountability Partner – Ask a trusted friend to track the times you use vocal fillers over a period of time and note progress.

3)      Join Toastmasters International – For public speaking finesse, this organization is brilliant at equipping its members to become competent communicators by offering strategies and opportunities to practice public speaking in a safe and encouraging forum.  A portion of their evaluation process involves assigning a counter to count the frequency of verbal fillers and track your progress.  This feedback heightens your self-awareness to stay conscious of mitigating the habit.  

4)      Be Prepared & Avoid Overpacking – If you are well-prepared with good content when you speak, people will inadvertently turn their attention to what you are saying more than how you are saying it.  When you have done your homework and are confident with expressing your ideas, you will naturally slow down, take deep breaths, so the fillers don’t sneak in.  Also, don’t pack too much material into a presentation or a conversation so that you are tempted to “rapid fire” your message in order to meet a time constraint.  This is prime breeding ground for fillers to appear.

5)      Be succinct – Longer sentences filled with unnecessary words get us into trouble.  Sporadically use simple, forceful sentences, with one subject and one verb.  

Half of the battle is realizing that these verbal villains, do indeed, creep into our speech.  Confidently convey your ideas, practice these strategies, and enjoy blossoming into a well-spoken, articulate communicator who leaves a great lasting impression.