How often do you use these word whiskers and phrases in your public speaking and presentations?
Whether on Zoom or in person, it is easy to lean on filler words or word whiskers, as they are often known. They become verbal crutches that we use either consciously or unconsciously when we are nervous, get rattled or are not sure about what we are saying. They take up valuable time (important when you are doing a media interview), cloud the meaning of what we want to say, and diminish our credibility. Word whiskers are empty words and a universal phenomenon in extemporaneous or adlib speech in most languages. Yet, they can creep up into structured speeches and presentations when the speaker is inexperienced, unprepared, or extremely nervous.
How to eliminate word whiskers in 7 steps
Data from behavioral science research and AI analysis show that the average speaker uses five filler words per minute; that is, one every 12 seconds. Quantified Communications, a people science company, determined that the ideal frequency should be about one filler per minute.
I did some research of my own last week.
In one hour of prime-time cable news, nine out of 10 guests interviewed started their answers with “Well…” It is like tripping on a rock before walking out on stage. Similarly, a question seeking opinion was most often answered with “Absolutely.” NO! Nothing is absolute but death and taxes.
Eliminating word whiskers and fillers is a common element of training for public speaking and powerful presentations.
Here are some ways you can start to shave those whiskers from your vocabulary:
1. Identify your crutch words and phrases.
The first step in changing any habit is to come to terms with it. You can identify your crutch words by recording a recent talk or presentation and taking note of the vocal fillers you rely on the most. Once you are aware of them, you will start to observe them in your day-to-day communication. Pair your crutch words with small physical reminders. Every time you catch yourself saying “like,” for example, tap your leg. Or have a close friend or colleague monitor your filler words and bring your attention to them with a clap or snap. The classic Toastmasters meeting structure includes an Ah Counter to keep tabs on filler words spoken by participants.
2. Look for alternatives to overworked word whiskers.
Ums, ah’s and ems add no meaning and are problematic when they are used repeatedly. Yet other fillers are more innocent transitory words to give us time to think of the word or phrase we want to say next. And, so, therefore, well, are some examples. Experiment with new words and phrases to make those transitions less noticeable. Here are some that I use: Do you agree? Does that make sense? Are you with me?
3. Embrace the silence.
In addition to finding alternatives, try using silent pauses. When speaking in public—and more so when we are on video calls—silence can be terrifying. We are inclined to fill silence with any sound we can utter. Resist filling those voids with nonsense words and embrace the beauty of the pause. You will draw attention back to you and open space for feedback and questions. Pauses help you emphasize points and give listeners time to understand your ideas. They also add cadence and variety to your speech and force you to slow down.
4. Slow down.
Few speakers talk too slowly with too many pauses. When feeling anxious, we often speak more quickly and use an overabundance of filler words. Speaking at a less hurried pace, combined with other techniques, will help you lessen the use of meaningless words. Practice slowing down and you will notice a difference.
5. Make eye contact.
In person or on Zoom, it becomes much more awkward to say “Um” when making full, engaging eye contact with individuals in the audience or on the screen. At your next meeting, experiment with turning your body and eye gaze toward each person in the room, giving your attention inclusively. When on a video conference, imagine your audience is inside the webcam, and occasionally make virtual eye contact with participants on the screen.
6. Practice, practice, practice.
Practice your speech or presentation much more than you think you should. Practice in front of a variety of individuals—from trusted co-workers to external people unfamiliar with your business. It is the opinion of the latter that makes the greatest impact because at the end, you want to have maximum comprehension of what you are trying to say. Take note of this statistic from experts in communication science: The optimal ratio of preparation to performance is one hour of practice for every minute of presentation. Practice for every engagement like it is the pitch meeting of your life.
7. Relax and accept imperfection.
To strive for perfection only compounds your anxiety as a public speaker and presenter. Understand that even the most coveted public speakers use filler words. For example, Barack Obama uses a protracted and in his transitions. Occasional word whiskers are not the end of the world. Set a goal of eliminating 50 percent of your filler words from your communications repertoire and you will feel like a winner.
Powerful public speaking is the foundation of leadership. Take these steps to eliminate excessive word whiskers and other fillers that cramp your style. You will give your speechcraft more power and impact and gain the confidence to speak in front of any audience.