Small Business

Eliminating Verbal Distractions from Your Presentations


Those little "ums" and "you knows" can really add up, and it's not that hard to begin to break the habit

Filler sounds, or words like "ah," "um," and "you know" should not disqualify someone for elected office nor should they limit a person's effectiveness as a business communicator. But all too often, fillers will diminish your influence in the eyes of others.

Caroline Kennedy, who has expressed interest in filling the New York Senate seat expected to be vacated by Sen. Hillary Clinton, is being skewered in the media because of her verbal tendency to fill conversations with um, you know, fillers. The Associated Press reported that Kennedy said "you know" 30 times in 147 seconds of video excerpts.

I had picked up on Ms. Kennedy's mannerisms early, but the magnitude of the reaction took me by surprise. Radio talk show hosts have had their fun at Kennedy's expense and it has become sport among bloggers who are counting the "you knows" in her interviews. Someone even created a YouTube (GOOG) video remix using Kennedy and Barack Obama. Yes, the President-elect uses fillers of his own. The fact that so many people are talking about fillers carries an important lesson for all of us who make presentations on a regular basis. How you speak can matter just as much as what you say. Here are four ways to eliminate fillers from your conversations.

Ask for input. Most of us are afraid of offending people. When someone asks me for advice and I see some real areas for improvement, I will be tough. But, like most people, I hesitate to offer unsolicited advice even when I'm dying to say something that can improve someone's presentation skills. And since most of your family, friends, and peers do not want to offend you, they will not tell you that your mannerisms are annoying! I wonder if anyone pulled Kennedy aside and said, "Caroline, before you pitch yourself to the Governor as the next New York senator, we need to work on how you answer the inevitable questions. Your answers must be specific, inspiring, and free from the filler words you use in everyday conversation."

Tap the glass. I came across this technique entirely by chance and it worked out extremely well. I was helping a woman rehearse a presentation and noticed that every other word was "ah" or "um." It became very distracting, so I told her I would tap a water glass with a spoon every time she used a filler word. My tapping became frequent, prompting her to eliminate the fillers from her speech. By the second practice, most of the fillers were gone. I've used it a few times since with equal success. Of course, this technique requires a second person to watch you and tap the glass during your presentation rehearsal.

Record yourself and play it back in the presence of others. If you are serious about improving your presentation skills, ask your friend to shoot a video of you practicing. I rarely meet with presenters without bringing a camera along. You don't have to tape your entire presentation, just the first five minutes. That should give you all the information you need to make some adjustments. You might be shocked to hear how many filler words you use. For most people, simply watching themselves on video is enough to overcome some issues. Video feedback is even more effective in the presence of others who can pick up on some verbal mannerisms you might overlook.

Practice answers to tough questions. In addition to recording the presentation itself, practice and record your answers to the most common questions you expect. If you're running for public office and you have never held such a position before, the most common questions are easy to predict: "What makes you qualified? What would you do upon taking office? Why are your positions better than your rival's?" You should know answers to these questions before granting an interview or holding a press conference. The same holds true for a business presentation. Committing answers to memory will help reduce fillers, since you will not have to search for the right word. You already know the right words. You've practiced the answer 100 times.

A few "ums" and "ahs" from time to time will not detract from your ability to persuade an audience. But a steady stream of fillers can damage your efforts. The good news is once you are made aware of the problem, you can easily follow the suggestions above to reduce or eliminate them. Good luck.

Carmine Gallo is the communication skills coach for the world's most admired brands. He is a popular speaker and the author of several books including Fire Them Up! His upcoming title, The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to Be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience, will be published by McGraw-Hill in October. More of Gallo's columns are available in his ongoing series.

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