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Like, Um, Ah – What Are the Worst Speaking Tics? Do You Know If You Have One?

Some people say “like” and “you know” so often that you want to strangle them. Others say “um” often and enthusiastically. Some people swallow nervously and spasmodically. Some people let their voice swing up in pitch at the end of every sentence as if they were always asking questions. For some, it’s happy feet – wandering around the stage as if they really loved walking and couldn’t wait to get off the platform. – Nick Morgan, “Do You Have a Speaking Tic?”

How many of us have sat through a briefing or training and started quietly counting the verbal tics of the speaker to pass the time?

How often did you completely miss the main point of the presentation as a result?

Let’s face it: verbal tics can thwart a person’s effectiveness and paralyze a person’s career.

And the worst part: we often aren’t aware of our own stutters and stumbles.

For instance, I feel like I find myself saying the word “actually” quite a bit while I am presenting. It’s sub-conscious, but I sense it.

Another problem is that your audience typically won’t tell you that you’re doing it. They strive to be respectful and don’t want to point out a flaw to avoid causing offense.

That’s why I’d recommend you ask a trusted teammate if you have one – somebody who is often in meetings with you and hears you speak in public regularly. If they haven’t noticed one, request that they start paying attention and share their observations.

If they identify one, here are three quick ways to squash it (which I’m borrowing from speaking coach Nick Morgan)

1) Compensate a “Counter” – Pay your colleague some relatively painful amount — like $5 or $10 — for every time you do or say something that they’ve identified as annoying to the audience. You’ll make yourself aware of it (and you’ll make yourself a bit poorer if you don’t fix it fast).

2) Capture the Culprit on Camera – Is there any way for you to get someone to videotape you so that you can observe yourself? Can you get your hands on the recording from an event where you spoke recently? Can you practice a speech in advance and capture it with your webcam? Nothing is more painful (and potentially productive) than observing yourself and discovering the behaviors that render you less effective as a communicator.

3) Correct in Conversation – You can also just practice a little self-monitoring in your day-to-day conversation. When you feel the urge to fill silence with meaningless mumbles, pause. Stop and wait for the next word to come – it might feel awkward at first, but it’s likely better than losing a person’s attention (or respect). Sometimes you really do say it best when you say nothing at all.

What have you identified as the most egregious verbal and non-verbal gaffes in others?

How have you uncovered and overcome your own troubling tics?

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29 Comments

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Profile Photo Lindsey Tepe

I like the point about physical tics as well – they can be just as distracting. At a presentation several months ago, one of the speakers was constantly wringing his hands and crossing / uncrossing his fingers. I have a tendency to nervously (and repeatedly) fix my hair.

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Profile Photo Steve Cottle

I think the best advice I ever got was that silence is OK. I unknowingly stuck a lot of “ums” in my pauses. After seeing myself on video and listening for it in others’ speaking, I realized audiences don’t notice silent pauses as you phrase the next sentence (within reason), because they are processing what you just said to them. Simple and obvious maybe, but took the video and watching explicitly for it in others to drive the point home for me.

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Profile Photo Kathleen Smith

Andy

All good points but why leave this to just presentations? These are verbal and physical tics that we tend to do in our personal conversations as well and can be just as distracting. I have several colleagues who have these tics and unfortunately I now wait for them rather than focus on what they are trying to say.

And yes, we all have them, no one is perfect. As it is said with another personal development issue, you need to know about it first. Painfully I have given my husband permission to point these out to me and I am a better speaker for it.

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Profile Photo Andrew Krzmarzick

Kathleen – Totally agree. I think point 3 gets at that a bit, but you’re absolutely right – that can be a career killer as well! And spouses are very good at pointing out our moments of less than peak performance, eh? Good call. :-)

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Profile Photo Jerry Schmidt

A great way to get around this is to actually work at public speaking. I was terrible at business presentations and then I joined a Toastmasters chapter. In the course of earning my CTM (Competent Toastmaster) designation, i was able to work my way through and past a lot of speech issues I had. I’m thinking about trying to start a Toastmasters chapter where I’m working now. In the speech critiques that you are given, there is a space for verbal “crutches” and any annoying physical mannerisms. It’s a decent program and well worth the investment.

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Profile Photo Andrew Krzmarzick

Good call, Jerry. I have not participated in Toastmasters, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of someone being disappointed by their experience – always positive.

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Profile Photo Janina R. Harrison

I did Toastmasters for quite a few years. Not sure if all chapters have the same criteria in judging your speeches. Ours focused on overall presentation, counting ums and ahs, physical nervous ticks, making gestures look natural, smiling, where to stand during your presentation if you have materials you are trying to show, speaking loud enough, grammar, eye contact, professional appearance, and you are encouraged to walk around to keep the audience engaged. You evolve through a number of types of speeches/presentations including story telling, which is important for audience engagement. All will stretch your abilities, as well as size of audience, and competitions.

Toastmasters is also a great forum for leadership development. Members can take on leadership roles and move into regional levels. Recruiting, fund raising, organizing events. All looks great on your resume.

I knew I had it mastered when I was asked to join Toastmaster’s speakers bureau and began receiving invites to speak at outside groups. The biggest thrill, I was approached by a professional motivational speakers firm at the end of a competition.

I did all of this because I was extremely introverted. I was working in contracting and needed more power in my negotiations. I needed to be able to walk into a room and introduce myself, start a conversation. Take control of the meeting before we started into negotiations. Get the upper hand.

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Profile Photo Peter Sperry

As a audiance member, I find that remembering I invested my time, and possibly money, to attend the presentation makes it much easier to focus on deriving value from the content rather than the various tics. I think professional presenters tend to focus a little too much on critiquing each other and forget that most audiance members did not attend to count “ums or ahs”. No amount of polish in the presentation will make up for lack of value in the content, while identifying even a few potential action items, providing some repeatable ideas or conveying useful information usually negates the impact of a few tics.

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Profile Photo Amelia Brunelle

I’ve gotten super sensitive to a verbal tic that seems to have grown in popularity in discussion groups. I picked up on it in grad school when people would raise their hand to participate, but it happens in normal conversation when taking turns as well… “I was just going to say…” People preface their comment with this, I suppose to dispose any awkwardness at having to jump in to a conversation or take someone else’s time, but it’s pretty silly. You’re already talking, and we’re already listening, so no need to tell us that you were ‘going to’ say something. It also really undermines that what you’re saying has value, which is really the key problem with tics. I put it up there with the ums, you-knows, and other verbal space wasters. I think along with the solutions and tactics included here, we all need to be confident that what we’re saying is valuable and people are listening for a reason. It reduces our nervous actions like verbal filler a lot.

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Profile Photo Deb Green

My debate coaches always referred to it as ‘Verbal Clutter.’ Strive for word economy.

Your message can be lost. Your credibility can be undermined. Watch your non-verbals. Even just distracting noisy jewelry can make your audience lose focus.

Speak confidently, clearly, and cleanly. Your message, call to action, credibility and reputation will go much further as a result.

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Profile Photo Chris White

I agree with the people suggesting Toastmasters. I’ve only been to a couple of meetings, but they call out every “uhm” and “ahh” and do a good job helping refine your presentation skills in a non-threatening setting. Most areas have specialty chapters as well. In Minnesota, for example, there’s a “TechMasters” group where people in IT can get together and give presentations. This helps because you know the people in the audience will understand the topic that you’re speaking about. Everyone can benefit from public speaking.

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Profile Photo Greg Berry

What drives me absolutely nuts is when people begin everything they say with “So…” These people can never answer a question without starting off with saying “So…”

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Profile Photo Kenny Paul Keel

Whether it is just general conversation or a presentation, hearing “to be honest” or “I am going to be honest with you” makes me chuckle. So, everything else you said was a lie, right? I am glad that you will finally be telling me the truth! I catch myself doing it sometimes also, but to be honest, I am trying not to. 😉

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Profile Photo Deb Green

LOL So, to be honest – actually, um, err……. 😉 Just kidding!

This isn’t a verbal tic, but my pet peeve gets going when I hear anyone use the term “irregardless.”

SMH. It’s ‘regardless.’ :)

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Profile Photo David G. Jones

When I am at a presentation and the presenter reads his / her slides to the audience I could just SCREAM. Slides should be key words and phrases (or better yet – images) that the presenter wants you to focus on, note and later recall while the spaces and blanks are filled in by the presenter’s address. I don’t know why 3/4 of presenters seem incapable of understanding how insulting it is to read slides to an audience.

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Profile Photo Shelly Nuessle

Lack of inflection is a peeve for me. Monotone…. drone…. Presenting is not reading.

I support Toastmasters, totally. As a long time member, I have often utilized by co-members as early listeners to my presentations. My big issue is I need to make sure I rehearse and get comfortable in the space. Otherwise, I hang around the lecturn like a lifeboat!…. Most of my presentations are in large conference halls, and I like to casually wander through the presentation – so I need to know whats coming next. If I dont know my material, I dash back to the podium a lot!

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Profile Photo Greg Berry

Oh, and while I’m ranting, it’s also annoying when someone speaks in such a way that every thing they say sounds like they’re asking a question. That, along with starting out with “So…” annoys me terribly. haha

ex: Where are you from? So… I’m from New York City? …said in such a way as if I might never have heard of New York City.

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Profile Photo Lynne Lapierre

One of the worst speakers I have ever listened to in my life would repetitively would say “Um, You Know, Ah” or reversed “Ah, You Know, Um” and sometimes she would put them together and say “Um, You Know, Ah” and pause with no other words and say again “Ah, You Know, Um” while playing the “itsy bitsy spider” with her hand gestures and then start talking again. It happened so frequently during the discussion that people would get up and leave the meeting while she was talking. If I was questioned about the meeting after, the only thing that I could honestly say that I got out of the meeting was “Ah, You Know, Um”. How frustrating. What made it worse was that these meetings were held monthly. Needless to say, many never returned.

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Profile Photo Chris Stinson

I am a hard core so’er.

Some people Ummm [pause] Ummm [speak],

I, So [pause] [speak]

I started doing it decades ago at team meeting, where, the first person to speak, took control of the conversation………

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Profile Photo Susan Harriet Baker

Andrew, nice summary!

I think the “agenda” tic is the most annoying … you know, where the speaker couches all conversation from a “see how stupid (etc) XXX is?” or “this process is awful, just like XXX”, or “I’d like to go out and WWW, but we need to XXX so I can YYY”. I call these folks “BANGERS”, folks that find every opportunity to push their agenda. But then, I am in Washington DC.

Your discussion on the other tics, which you go over above, is well done. Thanks for posting Morgan’s tips for overcoming them. There are speech classes folks may take that are offered by college theatre and arts departments, also some from community groups, community theatres, and Toastmasters organization, to name a few. Perhaps a search in the Yellow Pages or on the web.

Diction, projection, breath support, pacing, interpretation, all skills that help with stemming the tide of counters. Intent helps with what to do with one’s appendages. Eye contact helps with the conversation of communication.

Sometimes, however, these counters like, “Well”, “Hmmm” when used at the beginning of a sentence are another way of our saying, “I hear your point, but would like to respond with …”. They also hold us back from reacting with inappropriate emotion.

Knowing one’s material is also a help. And visualizing the audience naked.

Hamlet: “Speak the speech I pray you as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.”

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Profile Photo Bryan Conway JD, PMP

I’m guilty of occasionally dropping “like”s, it drives me (and probably others) crazy! It is generational. I mostly have it under control, but unfortunately it rears its ugly head now and then.

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Profile Photo Guy Martin

I agree with everything in the article and what’s already been covered in the comments.

However, one thing I’ve not seen mentioned that was immensely helpful to me is: participate in ‘Ignite-style’ presentations as much as you can: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ignite_(event)

Of course, not all presentations can be 5 minutes with auto-advancing slides, but, the process of preparing for and delivering Ignite talks really helps you hone your speaking skills and tends to eliminate a lot of the stammering types of tics (there simply isn’t room for them in 5 minutes).

I’ve found that Ignite talks also help me in larger presentations, because the process tends to drive economy of thoughts and words, which is always a good thing, no matter how long your presentation is.

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Profile Photo Betsy

I agree with Deb Green on the term “irregardless”…it has long been my pet peeve. My husband sometimes teases me with it because he knows I can’t stand it! I also know someone who repeatedly says “and I said” throughout conversations as well as presentations, even though it might not make sense in the context used or even if it wasn’t said. Personally, I have been known to count “um” or “ah” or “you know” when it becomes too distracting. I don’t intend to count, but it does seem to get stuck in my head. I have to make a conscious effort to focus on the content of the presentation when that happens. I know I’ve made my own mistakes; and though I’m not as conscious of any verbal tics I have, I do know that I tend to get nervous and show a very visible tic…my shoulders go up, like a gesture of shyness. I once took a speech class in which we had to video tape our speeches; and in my first video, I looked like I had no neck because my shoulders were up so high! I didn’t want to view my other videos! I have childhood pictures with the same gesture. So I’m usually trying to focus on not pulling my shoulders up more than avoiding verbal issues.

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Profile Photo Stephen Peteritas

My biggest thing is that I randomly get one word in my head and use it over and over again during the talk or conversation. I swear I know all sorts of words but once one is up I seem to focus on it.

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Profile Photo Andrew Krzmarzick

@GuyMartin I completely agree. I did an Ignite talk last year and it was one of the 3 most challenging talks I’ve given – and it forced me to start re-thinking the way I prepare and deliver other speaking opportunities.

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Profile Photo Andrew Krzmarzick

@Betsy – I probably didn’t emphasize it enough, but those non-verbals can be as bad as the verbal ones. I know a guy who had his left hand palm up doing mini circles in the air for a full 45 minutes! He has since corrected it, so he must be getting some coaching.

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