(Editor’s Note: Ian Smith is a contributor to this article.)
Person 1: The, uh, guy, he was like, you know, “If you don’t have your paperwork completed, you have to go to the back of the line.”
Person 2: So, you told him, like, “No way,” right?
Person 1: Yeah! Like, I mean, um, you know, I already waited in line.
Sadly, these weren’t two high school students chatting in the hall between classes. These were adults – senior knowledge workers, in fact – having a discussion in the office.
What’s even sadder is how common conversations like this are, even among the smartest people we know. You’ve probably heard thousands of them.
That gives you a great opportunity.
We’re all used to hearing wasteful “filler” words – um, uh, I mean, you know, like – in casual conversation and even in rehearsed lectures and presentations. So if you can wipe them from your vocabulary, you’ll stand out as a great communicator and an intelligent professional.
Breaking this habit can be a challenge though. Why? Some reasons that come to mind:
1. We’re afraid of losing the floor.
Silence in conversation is uncomfortable in our culture. When we’re speaking and need a half-second to think of our next word or to formulate a thought, we think it’s safer to keep talking – even if that means babbling “you know, like, uh…” – than to take that half-second in silence. If we’re silent, we worry that someone else will start talking.
2. We’ve been doing it since we were kids.
We pick up these verbal habits in childhood and carry them into adulthood. Teenagers don’t know what they’re talking about most of the time, so they use “like” and “you know” to fill the air while they figure things out.
3. Everybody is doing it.
When you are constantly inundated with filler words from others in your daily conversations, it’s hard to eliminate them from your own vocabulary.
These obstacles aren’t insurmountable! You really need not worry about losing control of a conversation – a respectful listener will let you think in silence for a second without interrupting you. And you aren’t a teenager anymore – you’re a lot more knowledgeable now and don’t need to fill the air with useless syllables while you fumble for an answer.
Often, using even two or three wasted words can weaken the power of your statement. Example: An 80-year-old comedian used to open with this joke:
“I just drove here from Ohio… with my turn signal on the whole way.”
Look at that sentence. Not a wasted word. But what if we add just four?
“I just drove here from Ohio… with, um, my turn signal on, like, the whole way, you know?”
Not as funny, is it? Just four extra words almost completely ruin this line.
In most cases, using filler words like “you know” won’t undermine your message as much as it can in a joke. But it’s still distracting and annoying to your listener – in a casual chat and especially if you’re giving a presentation. Over time, the habit will make you appear less polished, less professional, and even less intelligent.
So, um, where were we? Oh yeah. If you need a fraction of a second to formulate a thought, take it, quietly. Don’t add a series of ums, you knows and likes just to keep talking.
Chances are, though, that you don’t even know you’re doing this. So find out. Ask a trusted friend or colleague. He (or she) will know. Ironically, if your friend doesn’t want to hurt your feelings and isn’t sure how to answer honestly, he’ll start with, “Um…” Bingo. Then you know you’re guilty.
Another method is to pay attention to your speech when you’re in conversations. Listen for filler words. If you hear yourself using them, make a conscious effort to stop.
If you’re preparing an important presentation and you really want the ultimate test, you can record your presentation on video so you can review it and see exactly how you perform and what areas of your speech need polishing.
And if you have a teenage son or daughter, you might try – gently – to point out to him or her when you hear filler words. If that doesn’t work, just avoid her until she gets older. Take it from us – your child will appreciate your nitpicking once she gets into the workforce.