Stop saying um err...

12 Jan 2015

Stop saying um err...

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Do you have a friend who overuses any of these words?

I have to admit I have been guilty in the past of privately mocking some footballers for their inarticulate post match interviews. Their poor communication skills, I put down to down to an imbalance between the time spent honing their craft on the pitch and the time spent perfecting their public speaking skills.

It wasn’t until I started my own podcast and listening back to the recorded interviews, that I became aware, that I too have own communication deficiencies – a tendency of littering my interview questions with fillers – “umm”, “err”, “sort of”, “you know”, “like”. There are many more of these unwanted imposters, but these are the ones that I have become overeliant on.

Naturally, I’d like to cure myself of this annoying habit. I imagined that in order to do this I would need to understand more about where the habit stems from and what effect it has on the audience. Carmine Gallo, author of the best seller “Talk like TED” writes, “…all too often, fillers will diminish your influence in the eyes of others”. Andrew Dlugan writes that the problem could stem from a lack of planning, passion or knowledge given on a given topic. In many cases this may be true but I am not a 100% convinced. Why? Because there are occasions when we to talk “off the cuff”, and many speakers are able to communicate without an unhealthy amount of fillers.

The root of the problem could lie in our past, a result of the series of decisions we make in our lives. We choose who we socialise with, what programmes we watch on TV, where to work and what music to listen to. We shape our own environment and this impacts on the evolution of our speech and language. As the travel writer Bill Bryson states in “Mother Tongue”, “Movies, television, books, magazines, record albums, tourism, business contacts all have a binding influence.” He wrote the book in 1990 we could now add the Internet, which with free platforms such as Skype facilitates communication more than anything else.

On the point of friendship groups, I have consciously noticed that whilst I still use fillers in a relaxed social setting with friends, they increase when I am conducting an interview for my podcast. This could be because in the company of friends I am relaxed, whilst when interviewing guests on the podcast I am subconsciously looking for approval through the use of fillers such as “sort of”, “you know” and “perhaps”. I’m also more out of my comfort zone, leading to pauses whilst I formulate my questions. This doesn’t mean that I am less knowledgeable or passionate but simply that my brain is doing more exercise and required to think more.

The good news is that most bad habits can be cured. Again, decisions are key and if one wants to achieve something they need to set an objective. As with a recovering alcoholic, the first step is to recognise the problem.

I am not a specialist in public speaking, but as a qualified language teacher who has taught Spanish, English, French and Italian I do feel I am at least qualified to have a valid opinion. One of the things that I have learnt from helping others with speaking exams is that “fillers” or “discourse markers” as we refer to in the language learning classroom, when used appropriately, can be a clever tool to buy yourself more time in a discussion, interview or exam. In my opinion, that is the crucial thing to remember. If you are in control of your language you are able to inject the fillers into your language when you want to, not the other way around. Public speaking is a skill and like with any skill it takes hard work and practice.

7 action points to remember

  1. If you a re reading this you are already conscious of your use off fillers. As with any problem recognition is always the first step.
  2. How can you recognise that you are doing it? Recording yourself is always a good way to identify the problem.
  3. Remember that speaking is a skill that can be improved with more use and practice. To cite the overused cliché “Practice makes perfect”.
  4. Time yourself speaking spontaneously about a random topic.
  5. Research around the topic – By reading articles about fillers it became apparent that there are many people who would like to rid their speech of these words and phrases. To know you are not the only one is a comfort.
  6. Implement some strategies. Carmine Gallo in his article in Business Week wrote that he has a client talk and then taps a glass every time they use a filler word.
  7. Don’t obsess over it. It was reassuring to read an article by Presentation coach Olivia Mitchell in which she states that most normal people won’t pick up on the blunder and if they do, they won’t cringe.

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