I was sitting in the back of a conference room last week waiting to deliver a presentation. Speaking before me was, Barbara, a staff member talking about a new company policy. Soon after she began, I noticed she used what linguists call hesitation forms; more commonly known as fillers. Fillers are words or phrases a person injects into his or her speech in order to fill a pause or hesitation. Common fillers include um, ah, you know, okay, and my favorite, like. Barbara’s particular filler was the phrase “All right?”. Her presentation went like this:
You should always check with central division before sending out a repair order. All right? Because, if you don’t, we could double-bill the client, and that would cause problems. All right? So, if you don’t get approval from central division, hold onto the repair order and wait for approval. If it takes more that twenty four hours—all right?—call me and I’ll make sure that the correct person is assigned to the order. All right?
I started counting the number of all rights in her presentation. I stopped counting at 218. If fillers are limited to a few every now then throughout your speaking pattern, it is no big deal. However, if fillers become a regular part of your delivery, the impact is devastating. A quick look around the conference room and I could immediately see the impact of Barbara’s all rights on her audience. The audience, who—at the beginning of her speech—were giving her their full attention, were now looking down at their phones, their notes, their laps; anywhere but at Barbara. When people are uncomfortable, the first victim is eye contact. We simply can’t look at someone who is speaking poorly. Sadly, the less eye contact Barbara got from her audience, the more uncomfortable she became, so the more all rights she used. Even though Barbara was knowledgeable about her subject, she came off looking weak and unsure. The applause at the end of her speech was more of gratitude for the ending, than appreciation for the outcome.
Filler words have a specific cause. Humans grow up learning to communicate in a singular fashion; casual conversation. First with family, then with friends, then at school, verbal communication is always two-directional. During casual, two-way conversation, the listener is not passive. Listeners play an active role in furthering the dialogue. They nod their heads, show emotion with facial expressions, and keep the conversation going by interjecting phrases like, “What happened next?” or “Really, what did the other guy say?” These cues help the speaker deliver a smooth and continuous thought or story. The challenge in speaking to a group is, none of these cues occur. In fact, they are frowned upon because they can interrupt the flow. The lack of these cues can be disconcerting for a speaker who is not accustomed to one-way communication. This discomfort causes not only filler words to be used, but the tendency for speakers to pause after each thought; scanning the audience for a nodding head or accepting smile.
Speakers need to remember that, if communication is one-directional, they will not receive the cues they would during casual conversation. Given that the listener can think faster than you can speak, it is important to keep the delivery constant and uninterrupted. Waiting for signs that the audience understands or agrees with you will cause their minds to wander; making regaining their attention almost impossible. It isn’t that the audience is uninterested in your topic; they just don’t trust that you will be worth the effort of listening.
Here is the rub. You can’t simply say to yourself, “Don’t use fillers!” The rule of the brain is, if you tell someone not to think about something, they will think about it even more. Instead, recognize when you are expecting conversational cues during a speech, and power through the speech without them. Next, instead of avoiding fillers, replace them. Usually, the best replacement is to move onto the next point you intend to make in your presentation. Another good replacement for a filler word is a short pause. Taking a quick breath before moving on allows what you have said to sink in to the listener’s brain. It also gives you a quick stop to mentally move onto the next thought. Each point you make during a presentation should have its own space; its own beginning, middle, and end. Fillers drag one thought into the next; creating an endless drone of words and sounds. Pretty sound, the whole speech has a single tone; lacking the ebb and flow of an engaging presentation.
The first step to solving any problem is to recognize that there is one. To that end, either have a colleague observe your next presentation, or record it yourself to review later. Once you’ve counted all the filler words or phrases you use, you might see the need to tighten up your delivery. Do yourself a favor and make replacing fillers with more powerful delivery part of your every day practice. Rather than setting aside time every day to practice speaking, keep fillers top-of-mind during everyday conversation. Killing two birds with one stone; you become a better conversationalist and a better speaker. Good luck and…ah…you know…like…whatever.
Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.