We have all used them. It might be a repeated word or phrase like, “I would say,” “it seems to me that,” or “like.” It might be a repeated sound like “uh,” “um,” “ah,” or “er.” Not all of the speech is content; some of it is filler which, for the speaker, serves as a kind of crutch. And here is something scary for the public speaker: You don’t always hear yourself say them. That is because these filler sounds function as “vocalized pauses,” or expressions we utter when thinking of additional content. So the speaker’s mind is on the thought rather than on the crutch sounds they’re making.
The good news is that these disfluencies are not really a huge deal. As I wrote in a past post, audiences expect a few “ums,” and there is research to show that they don’t strongly interfere with an audience’s understanding of content. But if you want to maximize credibility as a public speaker, the crutch sounds do not help. You risk sounding distracted, unfocused, uncertain, or simply inexperienced. If the disfluencies are severe or habitual, you will need to do what you can to dial it back. For this post, I am going to share six ways to mitigate the crutch sounds.
- Prepare and Practice
An “um” or its equivalent appears when a speaker is having what I call a “compositional moment.” They’re deciding what to say, and inserting a vocalized pause to give them space to think of it. The more the content is worked out in advance, and the more you use a specific plan, good clear structure, and purposeful transitions, the more you reduce the risk. If you take every chance to practice your speech, live and on your feet, you will have more familiarity and comfort, and less of a need for crutch words.
2. Practice Silent Pausing
One of the most important elements of practice is to get comfortable with silence so you are not tempted to fill that space with meaningless sound. In conversation, people will often use these sounds as place-holders: a way to suggest, “I am still speaking.” For a public speaker, of course, you can usually count on not being interrupted, so you don’t need that place-holder. In its place, the pause is not just possible, but powerful.
3. Work on Your Stage Fright or Other Situational Nerves
A profusion of crutch sounds from a speaker can be a result of feeling too casual or unconcerned about the speech. More often, however, it is a form of tell that the speaker is nervous. So take a deep breath, focus on your purpose and your audience, and try to direct that internal spotlight away from yourself. Too much self-monitoring during your speech (i.e., “I said um…oh my gosh, I said it again“) can make things worse, though. So the best course is to remind yourself that a little bit of nerves is okay, and take all the steps you can in advance in order to ensure that you are prepared and calm.
4. Slow Down
Crutch sounds and other disfluencies can occur when your brain isn’t going as fast as your mouth. To reconcile that gap, you are tempted to use the fillers as a placeholder. As noted above, you don’t have to do that, and can simply and silently pause instead. But slowing down a bit, particularly as you are practicing, will help the brain’s compositional efforts keep pace with your speech so you don’t have those gaps.
5. Record Yourself
If you are doing your job during your speech, you will be focused on the audience and your content, so you will not necessarily hear yourself saying all of the “um’s” or “like’s.” And if it is a speech that ends up in a transcript, then the court reporter will likely be skipping those disfluencies as well. If you have the opportunity during your practice to record yourself, and everyone with a phone now has that opportunity, you will get a clearer picture of the crutches you are using. Awareness is the first step. It will let you know how much you need to practice and work on the silent pause.
6. Look for the Pattern
Finally, when you look at the recording, look at where you add the crutch sounds. Is it consistently at the start of a sentence? Between sentences? As you are getting to a key word or idea? There typically is some kind of pattern to it, and recognizing that may help you to guard against it, perhaps by planning better transitions and connections between thoughts so you are not mentally (and vocally) casting about during those moments.
Ultimately, this is not one of those things to be terribly worried about. If you look for them, you will notice that these disfluencies occur with even very experienced and effective speakers. But it is also one of those facets of public communication where nearly everyone can get better. So, to make it count, aim to emphasize the content and connections, and to minimize the fillers and crutches.