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Verbal Fillers? Um…

3 Mar

I’ve always told people that I’m a word person. What I mean is: I’m better at expressing myself on paper rather than in spoken conversation. (Bear with me here, I realize that anyone who has spent more than 15 minutes with me face to face is scratching his or her head. I do like to talk.)

And no, I’m not saying that I go all “Charlie Sheen.

It’s just that I write better than I speak, because I’m more comfortable in this medium. Here, my thoughts are better articulated and more fact-driven. My arguments are more logical and better organized.

But put me on a soap box and tell me to speak? To persuade? That’s not easy for me. I really have to work at debates or presentations. I envy people who can stand at a podium or in front of a crowd and eloquently and effortlessly spin a story that has an audience on the edge of their seats.

And then there’s the instant recall of facts, statistics and trivia…Torture! Embarrassment! I’m pretty intelligent, but forgetting key facts in the middle of battle is my Achilles’ heel. Again, it takes hard work to mitigate.

And just when I thought I’d developed strategies to deal with it all – to cloak my deficiencies – along come my speech disfluencies.

Until I listened to myself on a recording recently, I didn’t realize how often I relied on a combination of Valley Girl words, worthless sounds, and useless phrases to punctuate my pauses.

You all know them. I’m not unique. Like, we all tend to… um…use these phrases. You know? I’d like to think…um… I’m not alone. So….


There are several theories about what causes speech disfluencies and what strategies can be used to reduce their occurrence in our speech. It seems they are related to, but not exactly the same as, stuttering. (It’s worth noting that the Oscar-winning movie, The King’s Speech, generated thousands of dollars in donations for The Stuttering Foundation.)

Some suggest that they are used as a pause while the speaker determines what to say next. Other theories suggest that disfluencies help listeners process the conversation. In fact, listeners may even filter out these sounds naturally. This may explain why, when I mentioned to a colleague that I was appalled to hear myself speak, he disagreed with me. He’d never noticed my disfluencies. (On the other hand, perhaps he was just being kind.)

Recommendations for eliminating these annoying sounds include:

  1. Being aware that you have a problem;
  2. Inhaling when you feel an “um” coming on;
  3. Practicing what you plan to say.

I’ve been paying attention to my speech, and I’ve noticed some patterns.

  1. In arguments or debates, all statements seem to be followed by “You know?”
  2. Any time I present in front of a crowd, “um” creeps in, but it’s particularly frequent when I’m presenting via teleconference – and worse when I know I’m being recorded.
  3. Whenever I speak to my mother, every sentence ends with “So.” (It’s a mystery; I am conscious of this, but I CAN’T STOP IT. I’ve tried.)

I’m a little skeptical that awareness can eliminate these sounds. My “ums” feel involuntary. Practice has always been my salvation, and written notes help too. I’m going to try practicing on the phone and via videocam to rid myself of teleconference disfluencies.

If you’ve faced the same challenge, let me know how you’ve overcome it. ‘Cause, um… I think it would … like… you know… help. So….


May I have a word?

14 Mar

Can’t believe I missed this news on Friday: Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus has been named the new On Language columnist for the New York Times. He follows in William Safire’s footsteps. And if you remember, I wrote a blog post following Safire’s death in September.

For the last several months, the Times has rotated the On Language column among several writers. Ben was one of them, and over time, I’ve discovered that whenever I read his columns, I no longer felt as lost.

Ben is an executive producer at Visual Thesaurus, which is far and away my favorite word source. Subscribe if you haven’t already; it’s well worth it. I use it regularly, both at home and at work. It creates word maps, which are endlessly fun to explore (a little too entertaining, actually; either that or I have ADD). The word maps cluster synonyms of the word you’ve searched according to its meanings. This allows you to easily explore variants of precisely the meaning that you want to convey.

For language lovers and writers, Visual Thesaurus also offers several columns worth reading. Ben, for example, writes Word Routes. There’s also the Word of the Day and a feature called Word Lists.

I confess that I read these features and columns irregularly, but that’s only because I have a lack of discipline. Usually, I’m blowing all of my self-imposed VT daily time allotment on those damn addictive word maps. See for yourself what I’m missing.

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