stop bad habitsWhile doing a radio interview recently, I did what I tell my clients to do—taped myself so I could listen to the interview and grab some soundbites for the future.  Instead, I discovered that I have an “um” and “you know” problem.  It’s not something that occurs all the time but in the case of this interview, I was thinking through my responses and used the “ums” and “you knows” as filler while I composed my thoughts.  Not good—especially for a seasoned public speaker.

Some speaking coaches will argue that “ah’s” and “um’s” should be completely eliminated from speech. Others disagree, noting that these fillers create a sense of authenticity. Even great speakers like President Obama and Oprah have been known to slip in a few monosyllabic nonessentials from time to time. Peppering your speech with too many of them, however, damages your credibility. Like too much cayenne, it can leave an unpleasant taste in your audience’s mouth.

“Like’s” and “you know’s” in my view are the more damaging of the filler word syndrome and should be banished. So, in my quest for a cure, I scoured the Internet, reading articles and watching videos. I found that there is a treatment for filler word syndrome in the form of a simple APP: Awareness, Pause, Practice.

Awareness – It’s hard to solve a problem if you don’t know there is one in the first place. I didn’t fully recognize how much I was using fillers until I actually heard myself speak.  So use an audio memo app on your phone or buy a digital recorder and capture yourself speaking in a variety of situations.  When you are in the office, record your side of your phone calls. (Note that in many jurisdictions, it is illegal to record both sides of the call unless the other party knows and affirmatively agrees).  Listen to yourself and count how many times an “um” or “like” or “ah” or “you know” pops into your conversation.   And listen to the speech of others to see how often they insert fillers. Doing this will help you diagnose the severity of the problem and is the first step to awareness.

One speech coach offered this exercise.  Buy a bell. Tell a simple story—what your commute was like on the way to work or the experience of watching a child’s sports game or theatrical performance. As you tell the story, ask a family member or confidant to listen and ring a bell every time you say a filler word.  While disconcerting at first, it will help you develop the awareness of what fillers you use and how often. Repeat the exercise, on your own, so you sharpen your capacity to hear your own words and phrases.

Pause – Now that you are aware, every time you are about to say one of your fillers, simply pause instead.  The pause is extremely powerful.  For you, it allows your brain to catch up with your mouth.  For your audience, it allows them to take in what you have said and creates drama for what’s ahead.  Remember the expression, “you could hear a pin drop.”  The pause actually commands attention.

Practice – Whenever we are trying to change behavior and learn, or in this case unlearn, a habit, practice is the key to mastery. You can’t build endurance to run a marathon if you only run once a month.  You can’t perfect your cooking skills without burning a few roasts.  By the same token, getting rid of the verbal empty calories won’t happen overnight. Practicing new speech patterns will take time.

I hope to put myself into remission from filler word syndrome.  And I’d be interested in hearing what techniques you might be using to rid your speech from too many “um’s,” “ah’s,” “like’s” and “you know’s.”