Eliminate Insidious Vocal Distractions in Your Speaking

By Tom Mucciolo and Leila Jahangiri

Whereas certain vocal inflections can be gratifying, there are also times where vocal distractions interrupt the rhythm of speech and may reduce the effectiveness of the content. How many times have you found yourself unable to say just the right thing at the right time? Have there ever been moments where you just hurried through content not really sure if you were clearly understood? Have you ever had something “at the tip” of your tongue, but couldn’t quite get to the word?

Unrehearsed speech is spontaneously created and therefore words are sometimes jumbled, garbled, or simply misused in the context of the given topic. While fluency promotes clarity, disfluency suspends the immediate connection to content, breaking up the listening pattern and possibly limiting comprehension.

Such vocal distractions include fillers, rapidity and parenthetical intrusions. Understanding and overcoming these distractions are critically important in optimizing clarity in speech. The focus of this discussion is on fillers, namely, the sounds we make in between the words we say.

Eliminating Fillers

One of the most distracting elements when speaking is the use of fillers and, unfortunately, most presenters are unaware of the frequency at which these occur. In conversation and other unrehearsed speech, this type of disfluency is a frequent vocal disruption that occurs at a rate of 6% of the words spoken.

At times, fillers can occur when a speaker is trying to retrieve higher level language or technical terms that are less often used in normal conversation. In some cases, the disruption occurs when describing pictures or scenes, where information is more vague or ambiguous.

Unfortunately, any verbal hesitancy in speech can be interpreted as an uncertainty or lack of familiarity with content, which is why silence is the better filler when one is at a loss for words.

Some fillers are just added sounds such as, “um”, “uh”, “er”, or parenthetical inserts such as, “you know, like, again, okay, right”, or emotional interjections such as “aha, ah, oops, ugh, wow.” Fillers do not necessarily indicate a lack of knowledge, but are usually vocal pauses inserted while retrieving knowledge.

When speakers try to retrieve less familiar information, fillers such as uh and um are more likely to occur, and in some cases these verbal utterances are normal patterns in speech for the purpose of delay in order to keep from being interrupted or in order to find the best way of expressing information.

However, the length of the delay following the filler, that is, the actual time it takes to retrieve information, can affect a listener’s perception as to how familiar the speaker is with the content retrieved. For example, there is a difference between the uh and um fillers.

The “uh” filler is typically a shorter, more temporary interruption, with a brief delay following the “uh”, suggesting that the speaker is familiar with the upcoming content, but is hesitant in forming the correct expression. The “um” filler tends to have a longer delay, suggesting that the speaker may be unsure and searching for possibly unfamiliar content.

This hesitancy can happen when the upcoming content is highly technical or highly descriptive in nature where the speaker can’t seem to find the right word or phrase; or if the speaker is signaling a desire to not be interrupted during the pause.

Coincidentally, in situations of suspicion or doubt, where skepticism exists for example, the longer delay following the “um” filler may suggest that upcoming content may be conjecture, guess-work, or possibly not the truth. In any case, whether uh or um is accidental or purposeful, the longer the delay or pause following the filler, as with “um”, the more challenging for the learner in processing the continuity of content.

In reality, fillers are vocal evidence that you are thinking out loud. You’re letting the audience hear your distraction as you search for the next word, or the ideal phrase. To counter this problem, consider using silence as a filler. A silent pause will give you time to find the right word or phrase and allow your learners to concentrate on your intended content more easily.

Yet, if you find yourself using fillers frequently, you may be able to reduce the unconscious habit by using audible feedback to raise your awareness.  Just as the eyes can observe a body language distraction, the ears can detect a vocal disruption.

To help overcome a filler challenge, practice a presentation in front of a colleague. Have the person clap his or her hands, or snap their fingers, whenever you use a filler in your speech. Each time you hear the hands clapping or the fingers snapping, you will be conscious of the filler.

Hearing an external sound associated with a verbal filler raises your awareness of the issue to help you minimize or possibly eliminate the distraction. Overall, the goal is to reduce or eliminate vocal distractions so that your content and message can be more clearly communicated.

About the Authors:

Content excerpted from the book, A Guide to Better Teaching by Leila Jahangiri & Tom Mucciolo, Copyright 2012. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Dr. Leila Jahangiri (lj14@nyu.edu) is chair of the Department of Prosthodontics at New York University College of Dentistry. She is an active clinician, researcher, teacher, and global speaker. Tom Mucciolo (tom@medianet-ny.com) is a presentation skills consultant, leadership advisor, and president of MediaNet. He is also an adjunct faculty member at New York University.

The authors’ collaboration is a culmination of a vast research study. They share a common goal of finding ways to help teachers teach better, leaders lead better, and in the process allow teachers to become leaders.

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