Tossing Out Filler Words Takes Determination, Practice and Careful Preparation
Umm, er, uh, like, you know and literally are verbal litter that communicators should prune from their speech patterns. They are annoying and off-putting to many listeners. Worse, they can obscure the message you are trying to deliver. Take the time to toss out your verbal litter.
While some verbal litter attaches to different age groups, the annoyance it generates affects every generation of listeners. If you don’t believe you are a verbal litterer, record yourself in a business conversation or interview with a reporter. You might be surprised at what you hear yourself saying.
People who listen to influencers on social media, especially Tik Tok, are familiar with what’s called the “lavender voice”, a melodic, drawn-out voice with an upswing lilt. Based on its widespread use on Tik Tok, this voice pattern is intentional. Presumably, it takes practice to perfect. That same level of intentionality is needed to send verbal litter to the language dumpster.
Here are 10 tips on how to groom your voice to say what you need to say without verbal litter.
Acknowledge verbal litter is a bad habit. For professional communicators, it’s worse than a bad habit; it’s a verbal crutch. Admitting you have a problem is step one to getting rid of it.
Listen to how professional communicators speak and avoid sloppy transitions, filler words and slang. Good examples are radio announcers, who read scripts, ask concise questions and ad lib with clarity, good diction and wit.
Two frequent newsmakers who have mastered the art of diplomatic speech are Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. They speak very intentionally, appear well-prepared in answering questions and seem to measure the impact of every word they use. It’s mandatory in their high-profile, sensitive roles. It’s also a model to emulate.
To learn what you have to correct, record yourself in business-setting conversations, interviews with reporters and casual exchanges with coworkers. That’s an undeniable record of how you speak and sound. Share those recordings with one or more friends who can verify how much verbal litter you strew among your words.
Make a list of your personal verbal litter basket so you are conscious of what you say and what hopefully you can train yourself not to say, at least in professional settings. For many speakers, the use of “like” and “literally” are baked into their speaking patterns and they may be unaware (or unwilling to accept) these words are verbal litter.
Speech coaches encourage speakers to relax and slow down. It’s common to be nervous in important professional conversations, especially if you are trying to pitch a story idea or persuade someone to a point of view. Relaxing will make it easier to concentrate on the purpose of the conversation and slowing down will facilitate selecting the most relevant and potent words – and avoiding verbal litter.
How to relax is a personal matter that has to fit you. Slowing down is an proven speaking tactic that requires practice; for some a lot of practice. The benefit of slowing down is the ability to pause to emphasize a key point or collect yourself to make the next point. A momentary pause is far better than an “umm” or “you know”.
Speech training should include recording your practice sessions in which you attempt to avoid your verbal littering habits. For some, eliminating the use of “like” can leave a lot of holes in their speaking. The remedy is speaking in direct, short sentences. Brevity is a positive speaking trait that has to be mastered by repetition.
Listen critically to speakers on the radio, television and social media to discover techniques that work for you to speak more directly with less verbal baggage. Pay attention to voice quality as well as word choice. Notice how speakers adapt when speaking to different kinds of audiences, answering difficult questions or trying to get a key point across. Be open to stealing techniques that are effective for you and relevant to your speaking assignments.
Be conscious of word usage and expand your vocabulary. Be specific in word choices, use familiar phrases and rely on active verbs to brighten your speech and leave less room for verbal clutter. This is not an exercise in erudition as much as using language that resonates with the audience you are addressing. It’s a good habit when writing or preparing a speech to use a thesaurus to double-check the meaning of a word or find an alternative that is more descriptive or appropriate.
Prepare for professional conversations by rehearsing your lines and developing responses to potential questions. You don’t have to memorize what you will say, but you will have a mental template stored away of what you want to say that you can draw on during a conversation. Careful preparation is a hallmark of an effective and respected speaker.
It’s important to rehearse out loud and record yourself to assess your comments. Get feedback from a friend or coworker. For contentious subjects, have your friend or coworker intentionally interrupt you and ask off-the-wall questions. Consider timing your answers to anticipated questions, so you retain focus on your key point.
Take pride in being well-spoken. You may be surprised at the admiration you will generate from work colleagues and friends, including those who are careless in their own speech patterns.
Last but not least, make sure you have something to say, and say it with conviction as well as clarity. Avoid making story pitches, responding to requests or giving presentations off the cuff without focusing on your key message and supporting information. Speaking well is not an end in itself. It is a means to the end of making your point in a convincing manner without distracting your listeners with wasted words and verbal litter.