We’ve all known that person. Perhaps we’re scared to admit that we have been that person at one time or other – barely able to make it to the end of another sentence without reaching for some meaningless sound or phrase to stave off a silence so awkward it might cause the universe to implode.
As a teenager, about eighty per cent of my sentences started with ‘basically’ – the word ‘erm’ was heard at least two or three times a sentence. Some people call them filler words, others might know them as crutch words; irrespective of name, these are any sounds, words or entire phrases that does not contribute to the meaning of a sentence. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the odd one. Chronically overused, however, they can become an annoyance to an audience and a severe hindrance to the clarity of your message.
In more informal conversations, the parameters are different. A filler used in a sentence can signal to the other party(ies), essentially saying: “Next thought coming – please don’t interrupt me yet.” The issue arises when this approach spills into formal presentations and speeches, where you are far less likely to be interrupted and fillers become redundant. Over-reliance on fillers in these more formal settings can suggest a lack of presence, control and erode credibility. It is worth noting, however, that we are not helped by the declining quality of spoken English modelled by some politicians, celebrities, television and radio presenters.
What can be done? The remedy begins with reading. Familiarity with a range of punctuation and their purposes helps to know when breathing should occur and how long a pause should be for a comma, full stop or new paragraph, for instance. There is power in a pause, especially when taken after a key point. Even the most intelligent person in the world needs processing time; allowing your audience a few seconds will do wonders for how much of your message they are able to absorb. Yet, studies show a classroom teacher waits an average of 1.3 seconds between posing a question and demanding a response from students. Five to seven seconds is much more appropriate – it will feel like forever to you, but it will be appreciated by your audience.
In my early speaking, my over-reliance on the word ‘erm’ was chronic. The first thing I tried was simply pausing whenever I felt I was about to use it. I was then in a better position to get my head around the phrases and sentences I was using. Gradually, I was able to better punctuate my sentences in a way that allowed my audiences to more clearly comprehend my message. Pausing also allows you to reset your breathing, eye contact and stage position, so its importance as a key element of an effective presentation cannot be overstated.
I found attending Toastmasters massively helpful. During the evening, a designated person listens out for overuse of fillers and crutch words, providing a detailed report at the end of the meeting. I became aware of habits I didn’t know I had. The first step is moving the unconscious to the conscious. Once awareness is developed, it is much easier to remedy any problems.
Though it is the one thing we fear above all else during any form of dialogue or presentation, silence is an effective way to overcome the temptation to use unnecessary fluff that dilutes your message. Perhaps sometimes, saying nothing at all really is the best way to say it. Maybe Ronan Keating had a point. I’ll let you sing a solo on this one, though.