"Uhm, so... well, it's great to have the opportunity to connect with you... ah, right. So, shall we get started?"
They're like weeds in a garden... they creep into spoken communication... barely perceptible at first... then they begin to clutter... then strangle... and ultimately suffocate the beauty of a speaker's intent.
Like most weeds - with the possible exception of Japanese Knotweed - the occasional filler here and there is not the end of the world.
But left unchecked, a filler word addiction can devastate a speaker's impact. In one instance, I recall transcribing a conference speaker's flow. NINE uses of the word 'like' within the space of 30 seconds.
No, this was not a high school teenager chewing gum! This was a senior leader presenting at a major conference.
The truth is, when I think about the senior leaders I work with, filler words are one of the most insidious delivery tics I see.
Especially if used at the beginning of a sentence.
Even more so if that sentence is the first sentence of a comment, presentation or contribution to a meeting.
So, uhm, well, you know that kinda leads to the obvious question...
What can we do to reduce - or eliminate - them?
Having tackled this issue with countless professionals over the years, what follows is the most effective form of weedkiller I've been able to develop.
(No, it's not about just 'slowing down'. That well-intentioned advice is, in my experience, rather tricky to implement.)
Ready? Here we go...
- Choose a topic to talk about.
- Start talking about it.
- Shorten your sentences.
- That's right.
- Shorten your sentences and you'll be more purposeful in your language.
- Longer sentences with complex grammar significantly increase the likelihood of fillers.
- Think of it as speaking in bullet points.
- Now verbalise your punctuation [full stop]
- That's right [full stop]
- Say the actual words 'full stop' at the end of each sentence [full stop]
- Yes, seriously [exclamation mark]
- This will show you how long/short your sentences are [full stop]
- Notice how it creates a buffer between your individual sentences [full stop]
- This is important, as you'll see in a moment [full stop]
- Continue saying the words 'full stop' at the end of each sentence... but silently
- You'll find there is now a moment of stillness in between each sentence
- This is VITAL
- Reducing fillers means getting more comfortable with silence
- That's how you achieve it
Clearly, i'm not suggesting you should walk into your next Board meeting and start verbalising your punctuation [full stop].
Find a trusted friend to run this exercise with.
It may feel weird.
It'll certainly take practice.
But it's worth it.
Filler words should be illegal. As Max Atkinson points out, we use them in conversation, often quite naturally, to signal we don't want to be interrupted.
My point is that to achieve maximum impact in your speaking, honing the skill of cutting out fillers will give you a surprisingly significant edge.
Listeners who know you may not be able to pinpoint how you've upped your game; but they will detect that you have upped your game.
I'd love to hear how you get on with this.
When introducing the 'full stop' part of the exercise, you may find you go a bit flat in your delivery.
Relax - you'll be ok. That flatness is happening because you're having to think harder to implement the change in behaviour.
You can ramp up the energy and naturality later, once it becomes a habit. Change of any kind typically feels a bit clunky at first.
For now, simply savour the pleasures of a weed-free garden...