Time to limit your reliance on verbal crutches once and for all.

By Maggie Seaver
September 03, 2019
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So, like, uh, yeah, um, well, verbal crutches can be, like, super distracting, you know? They may be harmless every once in a while, but these sneaky verbal tics can really affect how people perceive you and react to what you say. These types of filler words, also referred to as disfluencies, distract from what you’re trying to express by both literally delaying your delivery and by annoying and grating your audience. 

“It’s important to eliminate the overuse of verbal clutches because it distracts listeners from the actual message,” says Ramona J. Smith, Toastmasters’ 2018 World Champion of Public Speaking. “Using filler words is a sign of nervousness and lack of preparation. Audiences are connected to confident speakers, and crutch words may detract from an otherwise excellent speech.”

That’s the bad news, but the good news is twofold. Everyday social speech is naturally disfluent, so using filler words every now and then is perfectly fine. There’s no need to eliminate their use completely; your goal can be simply to reduce it. Second, it’s entirely possible to lower the number of times you say “like,” “um,” “ah,” and other verbal crutches—it just takes some self-scrutiny, patience, and practice. Whatever your verbal Achilles heel, try using these tricks to cut it (mostly) out of your life.

1. Become aware of your biggest offenders.

Awareness is the very first step to overcoming filler word overuse. Don’t judge yourself or try to fix things right away. Simply start to take notice of which ones you say most and when. “In order to start the process of elimination, you must become aware of your favorite filler words,” Smith says. “Personally, my go-to word was ‘so.’ Once I became aware of that, I realized my pattern of usage. Moving forward, during presentations I would mentally catch myself about to say 'so' and pause to avoid verbalizing it.”

Forcing yourself to notice other people’s less-than-eloquent speech patterns, too, can make you conscious of how often you slip “like” into daily conversations, say “um” before answering questions at cocktail parties, or lead sentences with an unnecessary “so” during work presentations

2. Pinpoint when it's worse.

Now, figure out what triggers it. You may nail a presentation thanks to prep and practice, but fall into disfluent speech patterns as soon as the spontaneous Q&A portion starts. There’s no way to prep your answers for them, so you spew disfluencies to compensate for lapses in knowledge or pauses in thought; in other words, you try to fill the silence while you grapple for the right words. 

Maybe you notice fillers bubble to the surface when you feel pressure to impress: appealing to work superiors, talking to strangers at social gatherings, or even chatting while on a date. It’s also possible it gets worse during low-stress moments, like at dinner with friends or family, because in these moments you’re completely relaxed and with people who love you unconditionally. Translation: You get lazy.

While you can’t really prep canned answers for life’s impromptu conversations, knowing which situations exacerbate your verbal crutch dependency is a good place to start. This way, for example, you can head into that cocktail party or pitch meeting with some foresight, ready to catch yourself before “so” and “um” sneak out too often.

3. Record yourself.

Take it a step further and catch yourself on tape. It’s hard to hear how you sound until you actually hear how you sound. “Record yourself on the computer or cell phone and listen for commonly used crutch words,” Smith recommends. “Practice impromptu speaking during your free time. Choose a random topic or object and speak off the cuff about it for at least one minute, challenging yourself to refrain from using crutch words.”

4. Have someone count your fillers.

Ask a person you trust to get involved and hold you accountable. “Have someone keep track of how many times you use filler words after every speech or presentation you give.” Use this trick outside the office, too. Next time you grab coffee with a friend, or you're sitting around the Thanksgiving table, ask a trusted loved one to monitor of your “likes,” “you knows,” “ums,” and “whatevers.”

“I once had a friend who asked me to tally his use of ‘um’ on a piece of paper. He said it 25 times in a three-minute speech,” Smith says. “Seeing how often you use crutch words will raise your awareness of how much you are actually saying them.” 

5. Slow down.

This is one of those easier-said-than-done tips, because many people naturally tend to speed up when they’re nervous or excited. But if you can slow the speed of your delivery—whether it’s in the boardroom, during a wedding toast, or telling a story to a friend—you’ll be able to catch and prevent yourself from leaning on go-to verbal crutches much more easily. 

6. Stick to short sentences. 

“Research has shown that when you reduce your mental processing load, you’re more likely to increase your fluency,” writes communications expert Lisa B Marshall, the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker’s Guide to Success in Every Situation, in a Toastmaster magazine article on filler words. “If you’re a person who likes to write out what you plan to say, be sure to eliminate compound sentences, never start with a prepositional phrase, put most of your sentences in subject/predicate order and eliminate any vocabulary that you have difficulty saying without hesitating. The basic idea is to write for the ear, not the eye!”

RELATED: 6 Public Speaking Tips to Help You Conquer Your Fears 

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