Speaking clearly is a skill that’s, like, lacking, you know?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 9, 2014

When the entertainment blog Crushable interviewed comedian Vanessa Bayer last fall about her experience as a cast member of Saturday Night Live and spending time with celebrities on the show, her reply proved a tad tough to digest.
“We get to spend a lot of time with them and stuff,” she said. “And a lot of times, especially with the female hosts, I, like, kind of want to be their best friends because they’re, like, so cool and they have it together so much. I feel like to be in that position, I think you kind of have to have your life together so much. And it’s fun to like, hang out with them and be like, ‘Oh you’re cool!’”
Did you, um, like, catch that?
It’s not just celebrities who can litter their speech with such “filler words,” the vocal pauses millions of us use in everyday conversation. “Like.” “Um.” “You know.” They’re universal problems in the workplace, in the classroom, in politics, in everyday community events. From wedding toasts to business presentations, they clutter our speech and frustrate our listeners, deadening our effectiveness as speakers and allowing audiences to question our competence and intelligence.
The problem isn’t getting any better. Surveys consistently reveal that public speaking is among our greatest fears, though it is not a required course in high school or even in most colleges. We are producing generations of students who lack the tools to overcome their anxieties and learn to deliver a speech with confidence and clarity.
There are a few simple steps every speaker can take that lead to improved communication.
The road to better speaking starts with an informal conversation-audit. The people who litter a speech with fillers most likely do the same thing when talking to friends. Ask your friends, the ones who really love you and want what’s best for you, to tell you the truth about your speech habits.
Then record yourself rehearsing a speech. You will hear the “ums” or the “you knows” and, if you use video, will actually see what you are doing when these pauses occur. Most people use fillers as they move from one point to another, or even from one sentence to another. They look down at their notes while inserting a vocalized pause. Others have a tendency to look at the ceiling while pausing to gather their thoughts.
And don’t obsess over trying to eliminate all filler words. There will always be fillers. Your goal is to reduce them to a minimum, so they are the exception, not the rule.
Finally, just practice. Filler words multiply with nerves, and nervousness is almost always inversely proportional to preparedness. When practice goes up, nervousness comes down. As you practice, you gain confidence that you know your material, that you are passionate about sharing it with an interested audience, and that your ideas are important.
The best presentations I observe from students don’t sparkle because of what they lack, but because of what they contain. They have spirit. Enthusiasm is your greatest asset as a speaker. And they have substance. Solid content, sprinkled with stories, will capture the listeners and keep their attention throughout. It may be that filler words are only noticed in speeches where spirit and substance are missing.
Following these steps may help some out of the communication pit.
However, the best solutions will begin early, in our homes and our schools. Parents should model and encourage good communication habits for their children, and find ways for them to learn to speak with clarity and passion. We can even assign oral presentations for the dinner table. And, of course, public and private schools should require each student to take public speaking before graduation.
Educators have long recognized writing as an essential skill that must be mastered for success. It is time for competence in public speaking to share that spotlight.

J. Mark Fox teaches public speaking in the School of Communications at Elon University. Email: foxmark@elon.edu.