When put on the spot or giving a presentation, you’re not alone if your speech picks up a few communication muddlers — also known as speech disfluency. Whether it’s frequent “ums” or added words such as “you know” and “literally,” these little additions crop up at varying frequency for most people. How damaging is this to our communication?
In general, the content of what you’re saying is most important to your listeners, although listeners’ expectations vary depending on the scenario. We expect professional speakers or authority figures to use fewer fillers. While in friendly conversation, listeners don’t typically notice them, unless they’re excessive.
Interjections such as “you know,” “like,” “um,” “uh,” “I mean,” “Ok,” “well,” “actually,” “so,” “what I mean is,” and “what I want to say is” are common today and they’re present in all languages (and their use has been around forever). These fillers, along with disclaimers, hedge words, and embellishments, can cloud our communication, according to communication skills expert and NST speaker Pamela Jett. They “can add unnecessary ‘bulk’ to our message and potentially confuse the listener.”
Jett suggests that they weaken your credibility and dilute your message. “I could be wrong, but …,” “This might not work, but …,” or “I might be the only one who thinks this…” are examples of disclaimers. Hedge words are phrases such as “hopefully,” “probably,” “possibly,” “quite,” “relatively,” “reasonably,” and “fairly.” Embellishments are words like “very,” “super,” “really,” etc., used in place of a more descriptive adjective.
Nervousness, lack of confidence, lack of preparation, and indecision are a few reasons for the use of fillers, according to Dr. Lance Strate, professor at Fordham University in New York. They also give the speaker time to think if responding to a question. Because they’re very common, he considers them to be a normal part of speech — and not a sign of our eroding English language or Western education. He does see it primarily as a decline in the emphasis on public speaking in education, a situation he agrees is unfortunate.
Most people do agree that imperfect speech patterns can be distracting and take away from the forcefulness of what you’re saying. In general, however, research shows these hiccups are mostly discounted unless they’re extreme (or you’re a public figure or on TV). So essentially, they are wasted space.
If you’d like to make better use of that wasted space, take the time to assess your speech patterns. Then, here are a few suggestions to help you reduce your use of fillers.
- Prepare so the information your mind is seeking is close at hand.
- Limit distractions so you can focus on speaking. Turn away from the window or the conversation happening in the hall.
- Don’t put your hands in your pockets. Keep them free to gesture as you emphasize points.
- Pre-plan your topic transitions. Concentrate as you switch topics. Plan exactly what you will say. Use a phrase such as “another important point …” rather than “um.”
- Tell a story if possible. If there is a chronological order to what you’re saying, you will be less likely to use fillers.
- Talk face-to-face when you can. Even in a large group, making eye contact helps reduce fillers.
- Relax and focus on your listeners. Push forward instead of pausing to consider each thing you say. You may choose the wrong word and have to correct yourself, but your communication will be more fluid.
- Use short sentences and pacing. Get to the point and then pause. Several short sentences are better than one long, complicated one.
Research shows that most people have some speech disfluency. Unless a listener is specifically focusing on these imperfections or the imperfections are excessive, they will likely be ignored. However, strong verbal skills are just as important today as ever. And, according to J. Mark Fox, professor at Elon University, “Those who have them will rise to the top of almost any profession.”