Um, we need to, like, talk



Annoying verbal tics can distract shoppers from your outstanding sales presentation

verbal tics

So, today, we’d like to, um, discuss how you can, like, get rid of all those conversational space fillers that, uh, distract from what you’re, er, trying to communicate, you know what I’m sayin’?

The most common verbal tics are short words or utterances that are little more than sounds. But there are other tics, like ending sentences with questions such as “right?” or “you think?” When you’re the speaker, verbal tics take up space and allow your brain time to think, but to the listener they can be distracting and make you seem unfocused, insecure and less professional.

Here are some ways to rid yourself of tics:

  • Stop speaking. Steven D. Cohen, an expert on public speaking and presentations, says we typically use filler words at the beginning of a sentence and in between ideas. Pausing—without speaking—when asked a question or between thoughts “serves two important purposes: It will help you begin powerfully, and it will help you avoid using a filler word. Pause, think, answer,” he writes in a recent blog post for Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Harvard Extension School.
  • Slow down. “Generally, we use tics when we’re trying to give ourselves time to think. But if you speak slowly in the first place you’re less likely to need that extra time,” says Daphne Gray-Grant, a communications coach based in Vancouver, British Columbia. “Also, slower speech will give the monitoring part of your brain time to ‘watch yourself’ and avoid the tics.”
  • Practice. In your next sales training session, have retail sales associates pair up and talk. For the first minute or two, have RSA 1 stop RSA 2 every time he relies on one of his tics. Then have them switch places so RSA 2 can monitor the speech habits of RSA 1. You also can video employees—or encourage them to video themselves—to help them better recognize their own patterns.
  • Make a note. Gray-Grant says she puts a note on all her speech and presentation folders, reminding her not to utter her go-to speech filler, “um.” You can put a Post-It note in your car or turn your computer password into a memory tickler: “dontsaylike” is a great reminder every time you log on.
  • Get competitive. Try a twist on the “swear jar.” Employees can pick a tic they’re trying to eliminate and each time a co-worker catches them using it, they must put a quarter in their jar. At the end of a week or month, the person who has contributed the least to their own jar gets all the money in everyone else’s.
  • Join a group. Organizations like Toastmasters International or courses at your local community college can help you eliminate tics and improve your speaking skills more broadly. They’re also a great way to network, so bring plenty of business cards and be ready to talk mattresses and sleep!


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