(Editor’s note: This was one of the top viewed stories of 2014. We’re rerunning it as part of a look back at the articles that captivated our readers the most.)
If there were “Survivor” for words, I’d vote off “literally.”
It’s inserted into sentences for no real reason.
I am literally the hungriest person in the world right now.
I am literally going to break this printer in a minute.
The coffee machine is literally the slowest thing on the planet.
Sound familiar? Maybe you even use it that way. You are not alone. Similar to “um” and “uh”, “literally” has become a filler word—tossed into sentences needlessly.
Honestly… (as if you’ve been lying up until now)
What’s your filler word? You probably have one and you just don’t know it.
A couple of years ago, a client flew me to Australia. I wanted to powerfully raise awareness, and I started using the word “truly” to heighten emotion. Truly, truly, truly. I was inserting it everywhere. Once it was brought to my attention, I focused on it, and I was able to get rid of it that very day.
Become aware of your habits, and learn what your filler words are. We often pick them up from other people. Sometimes we turn to them when we are in a particular situation such as when we are presenting in front of a room, when we are excited or nervous, or when we have to deliver bad news.
Filler words can be classified into a few different categories:
We insert filler words in between the clauses—filling the spaces that need pauses.
Instead of saying: “My name is Ben, and I have three athletic boys. During the spring, I spend a lot of time at baseball games. Last weekend, I went to six different games,” it sounds like this: “My name is Ben, and uh, I have three athletic boys. During the spring, I spend, uh, a lot of time at baseball games. Like last weekend, I went to, um, six different games.”
It’s hard to read this example on this blog post, and it’s also hard to listen to it live. We’ve all heard someone else do this. Chances are you might have done it, too.
Filler words can also be used for dramatization and emphasis. “There were, like, a million mosquitoes” or, “They literally asked me how to do a search on LinkedIn.” We all love dramatization when we are telling stories, but as a listener, those repetitious “likes” and “literallys” are annoying and can destroy the credibility of the person speaking.
Filler words sneak in at the beginning of our sentences, kind of like a long runway as we are getting into an idea—before it takes flight. It’s much stronger if we eliminate these repetitious fillers. The usual culprits of runway fillers are: “So…” “Like…” “Honestly…” “In theory…”
It happens when you are asking for permission—repeatedly ending sentences with “right?” or “OK?” or “you know?” They are ways for us to faux check back with our audience. I say “faux” because they are usually posed as questions.
Using these words on occasion isn’t the problem; it’s a problem when these words become repetitive that it’s hard to concentrate on the rest of your content. Something you might not know: Eliminating filler words is one of the easiest things to do.
Tips for cutting out ums, uhs, and literallys
Not sure if you have a filler word (or two)? Watch yourself on video; there’s no better tool than this. The camera doesn’t lie, especially when it comes to audio.
1. Leave yourself a voicemail. When replaying it, note the words you default to when you’re not focused. In our one-on-one platinum coaching, we always give an audio recorder to executives so they know how they come across. Alternatively, you can even use your smartphone in “voice memo” function. (The only problem is that you’re usually on it.)
2. Try to overdo a pause. The power of the pause has amazing impact. Just pause. Challenge yourself to only resume when the next thing out of your mouth is not a filler word, but it is your next idea. It might feel like you are waiting for an eternity, but it won’t seem long to your listeners. Over time, your pause length will shorten.
3. If you project your voice, it’s really hard to say “um…” That energy, pitch, and projection eliminate the tendency to add an “uh,” and it makes it more engaging for other people who are listening.
4. Don’t get down on yourself. If you focus on the negative (saying too many “ums,” “likes,” and “honestlys”), it can create a self-fulfilling prophecy of filler word overload. Instead, focus on the positive. One of our coaches asks people to say the phrase, “I am a person that perfectly pauses” out loud. Not only do you have to slow down and enunciate that phrase (so much alliteration), but it also shifts your focus to what you do well.
Eliminating filler words won’t take extra time—it will just take extra effort.
Slow down and pause. This is the golden ticket.
The payoff for this is tremendous: heightened credibility. A better delivery. Best of all, a clearer message without the distraction.
Ben Decker, CEO of Decker Communications, is an expert in consulting, training and messaging for effective business communications. He has worked with hundreds of leaders in Fortune 500 companies to strategize and implement solutions that are practical, direct and attainable.