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Filler words Improving Your Presentations Public Speaking Nerves Public Speaking Tips Virtual Presentations Work Presentations

Umm, so like here’s my lenient take on filler words

Those pesky filler words, such as um, uh/ah, like, so, but, you know can creep into our speeches and presentations without us even realizing it. Sometimes we use them a little too much in our speeches and it becomes distracting to our audience. Best practice is to limit your usage of filler words, but I think some trainings go overboard on this rule, making you think that you have to be perfect as a speaker by not saying any filler words at all. This is, of course, very hard to do.

Moreover, it’s unclear how the number of filler words impacts the effectiveness of your message, and I don’t think there’s any evidence to back up the foundational assumption either way.

At the end of the day, the most important thing that you can do as a speaker is to provide well-organized and well-delivered message(s) and content to your audience.

My first fight with filler words

Before I joined Toastmasters in 2014, I had no idea about filler words. I didn’t notice them when I spoke, and I didn’t notice when other presenters used them, even excessively. I remember joining Toastmasters and being simultaneously impressed and intimidated that they count filler words throughout the whole meeting. When I finally mustered up the courage to give my Icebreaker speech (4-6 minute introductory speech about myself), I had nine “umms,” although I am pretty sure I had more and the Er-Ah Counter was just being nice. I couldn’t believe that I had nine filler words in there—I couldn’t even recall when I had said them!

Man nervous about giving a speech
What I am sure I looked like while giving my Icebreaker in October 2014.

After that, I set the goal for myself to not have any filler words in my speeches—I did not want to be the main focus and call-out on every Er-Ah Counter Report at the end of the meetings! I was now aware of my filler words, which helped me to then fix and break my habit of using them. Every time I said an “um” in my subsequent speeches, I could see the Er-Ah Counter making a little tally mark on their paper. With this classical conditional training (say a filler word and sense the Er-Ah Counter counting it on their report), I slowly started to limit my use of the word “um” in my speeches. However, it would really throw me in some of my early talks. I would say an “um” and then be upset with myself internally and almost lose my train of thought. Sometimes I would even call out the use of the filler word in the statement just in case the Er-Ah Counter didn’t notice it.

By my 10th speech, almost a year later, I had ZERO filler words, according to the Er-Ah Counter’s report! This was a major accomplishment, and I was so proud of myself. But here’s where I got a little lost and misguided—I don’t remember anything about that 10th speech except that I didn’t have any filler words in it. Did I leave the audience with good content and a message they could relate to and remember later? Did I deliver it in a well-organized way to help the audience truly understand the message? I don’t know. I really don’t remember, and if I don’t remember as the speaker, I am sure the audience doesn’t remember either.

I was so focused on accomplishing my zero filler words goal that I forgot my ultimate goal of a speaker—to provide an understandable and insightful message and content to my audience. I forgot about my audience and really only focused on myself.

The Fanatical Focus on Filler Words

I completely understand why public speaking trainers recommend limiting or not using filler words at all in your speech. Filler words, when used excessively, can be very distracting to the audience. They may start to pay attention to your filler words more than your message, which is what we do not want as speakers. If you have a nervous energy, like me, and use filler words excessively in your speech or presentation, the audience may think you are unprepared. Filler words can also decrease your credibility, and the audience may start to think that you’re not well-versed in the subject you’re talking to them about. Filler words can also affect your delivery. Let’s say you are trying to drum up suspense and silence, but you keep filling that silence with an “um” or “uh,” you may take away from that suspense you are trying to create.

My forgiving, lenient take on filler words

I get all of the reasons to limit filler words in your speeches and presentations, and I think it is important to be aware of your filler word usage and how it is affecting the most important parts of your speech: your content, message, organization, and delivery. With that said, I think sometimes we get so caught up in trying to limit our filler words and be perfect that we forget about our content, message and substance. The Er-Ah Counter is a great awareness tool to learn that you are using filler words excessively. However, I think it can be intimidating to new speakers and create a sense of perfectionism that just isn’t necessary.

I have seen and heard many memorable speeches that have been littered with filler words. However, their story/message was so strong that the filler words did not detract from the overall message. One example of this that I will always remember is The Moth story “Hoboken Roast Beef” by Adam Wade. I was taking a free creative writing class, and the instructor sent us the link to listen as an example of creating a wonderful story about everyday, mundane things. As I started listening, I immediately noticed all the filler words and couldn’t believe this was an example of a good story. But a few minutes in, my silly judgements subsided, and I started to enjoy the story. It is an excellent story – very humorous and heartfelt at the same time, and also relatable too! The storyteller’s pace is quick and frantic, which leads to him using more filler words, but that seems to fit his personality and his perspective in the story as well. I love this story and how he tells it! I have not listened to any of his other stories or speeches yet to know if this is his style or it was just this particular story, but either way, he did a great job in creating a memorable story that I still remember even a year later after listening to it.

My argument here is that a good story and message can overcome and surpass even the most excessive use of filler words. Perfectionism (in terms of filler words) does not enhance our speech much. No one in the audience has walked away from a speech saying, “That speech had no filler words in it! It was excellent!” The audience may only notice your filler words if used excessively.

This term excessively is very vague in most public speaking trainings as well because it’s subjective. To me, excessively means if you use a filler word about once a sentence on average. Others will have their own definitions of excessive amount of filler words, but the point is that it’s excessive when it takes away from your content and your message.

If you are a speaker who has been told you use filler words too much, that is certainly something to be aware of. However, take comfort in the lenient view that you don’t have to be perfect and make your speech filler word-free. Focus more on your content, message, organization and delivery, and your audience won’t even notice you had some minor filler words occasionally throughout your speech.

Three strategies to improve your speeches, which will also help you to limit your use of filler words

Perhaps you are someone who uses filler words excessively and wants to improve. If you focus on some of these strategies, then that may help you to improve your filler word problem while also improving your speeches and presentations.

1. WATCH YOUR SPEECH VIDEOS AFTERWARDS 

This can be uncomfortable, but it is essential if you want to refine your performance. When you watch yourself, you may realize that you used more filler words than you thought you had. You can also notice where you use filler words more—is it in the beginning and end or more in the middle of your speech? Perhaps you really practiced and had your opening and conclusion down, so you didn’t use fillers words at all, but the middle of your speech isn’t quite as practiced, which leads to you using more filler words inadvertently. Being aware of how many times you use filler words and when you most often use them is your first step in fixing the problem. Watching your speech videos afterwards will also help you to see what is working in your speech and what isn’t in terms of organization and delivery. You can learn how well you are getting your content and message across and how you can improve that for the next time.

2. THE POWER OF THE PAUSE

Filler words usually come up when people are transitioning from one point to another and feel you need to fill the silence. Purposeful silence in speeches, just like in movie theaters, is golden. Use a pause to signify that you are moving on to another thought, paragraph, example, etc. You can also use a pause to add to the suspense and make your audience wonder what will happen next (caveat here: only if this fits your story; if overused, this may be annoying to your audience who wants you to get to the point). The pause can be very powerful when used appropriately. Use it wisely to help you enhance your speech and give you the extra benefit of less filler words.

3. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!

I use this saying/mantra a lot in our A-Ha! Method Podcast (probably to an annoying extent), but it’s so true for public speaking and most other things in life. Practice makes progress, and I am trying to force myself to practice more too!

Practice your speech ahead of time. Practice it often. Practice it a lot! Practice in front of an audience, then get some feedback, practice it at home some more, and then give it again. You will get better at your particular speech and presentation the more times you practice, and you will also be more comfortable speaking in front of people in general if you continue to practice in front of an audience. Commonsense I know, but this actually involves a lot of effort and pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, which is easier said than done.

You can practice, practice, practice at one our Speakers Alliance weekly practice sessions. We will focus our feedback on your content, message, organization and delivery, and we will only mention filler words if you use them excessively.

Final feelings about filler words

If you focus on more important aspects of your speech, such as content, message, organization and delivery, then everything else will fall into place, including not using filler words. Let’s stop putting so much pressure on ourselves as speakers to be perfectly polished and start focusing more on our authenticity and the audience takeaways. Filler words are a small part of the presentation, and if you are just focusing on that as a speaker, an evaluator, and even an audience member, then you are missing out on other key areas.

Our stance at Speakers Alliance is that it’s okay to have a few filler words here and there in your speech and presentation if they happen to slip out. Don’t fret if you say a few – keep going with your speech and continue wowing your audience with your incredible story, message and content. That’s what we care about most of all!

Speakers Alliance is here to help with all areas of improving your public speaking. Here are a few resources to check out to take your public speaking to a new level:

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Boosting Your Confidence Public Speaking Nerves Public Speaking Sweats Sweating and Speaking

Episode 3: The A-Ha! Method Podcast

Never Let ’em See You Sweat

Episode 03

Getting sweaty comes with the territory of being a public speaker. But when the deluge starts, how do you keep yourself in a state of flow? On this episode, hosts Gabe Zichermann and Dayna Gowan talk about the tricks, tips and hacks for making yourself less self-conscious and more in charge of your sweatiness. 

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Fear of Public Speaking Improving Your Presentations Public Speaking Nerves Public Speaking Practice Special Occasion Speeches

A Toast to Social Speeches and How to Make Them Great

Weddings, Bachelor/Bachelorette Parties, Holiday Gatherings and Funerals are all situations in which we may find ourselves needing (or wanting) to give a speech. For many people, this is the first time they are prompted to improve their public speaking skills. For others, it is merely a nail-biting event at which we desperately want to succeed. 

Speaking professionals refer to these kinds of talks as “Social Speeches,” or Special Occasion Speeches, to differentiate them from business or political ones. The important distinction is in the name: speeches in this milieu are meant to evoke a particular kind of closeness or connection. Generally if you’re asked to speak at these events, the organizer will be less concerned with your polish and perfection, and more with your delivery of appropriately funny and/or touching anecdotes in a good spirited way. 

Whether this is the one and only time you’ll get up in front of people to speak, or just another step in your journey to become a better communicator, there are several key lessons you should observe when planning and executing a social speech.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Yes, social speeches are somewhat lower stress than professional keynotes. They are usually unpaid, often unsupervised, and – because the organizer is not usually an event professional – they are given minimal attention until the big day. Don’t let this lackadaisical and freewheeling environment fool you: to do a great job at public speaking – regardless of the context – you need to practice your heart out. If you use the approach described in the A-Ha! Method, you can save significant time and may find it easier to memorize and nail those points.

You Don’t Have to Be Funny

Film and TV tend to represent these social speeches as comedic moments. But if you don’t have the halcyon delivery of Owen Wilson or the hipster gravitas of Vince Vaughn, you may not be perfectly suited to hitting those jokes repeatedly. This is not to say that you couldn’t or shouldn’t be funny, but the suggestion is to know your voice and to embrace it. If you’re more serious, be more serious and heartfelt. If you’ve got a light touch, do that. Either way, you’ll be more successful if you embrace your own POV than trying to fit into someone else’s mold.

Shorter is Better

Most social speeches should be kept under 5 minutes. Just think about the typical wedding: if 6 people/groups need to speak, and each takes 10 minutes, you’ll be sitting there for a solid hour listening to family members and friends drone on. Take a cue from what you would enjoy and keep it to a nice tight 2-3 minutes. The shorter timeframe will help you focus and give you clarity. After all, it’s better to say one thing really well than 5 things poorly.

Grab The A-Ha! Moment

In every social speech there is typically one line: an anecdote, observation, expression of love or broader social issue, that is the memorable moment from the speaker. Much as we do when giving a keynote or conference talk using the A-Ha! Method, our process begins by thinking about those moments of connection with the audience, and then building a talk around it. This emotional high-point is the thing that will have the biggest impact, so it needs to be strong. In most social speeches, there is time for one A-Ha! Moment in the middle, and a strong tag at the end that wraps everything up and brings it together.

Strong Openings and Closings

There is a tendency for most speakers to “fill” time as the stage or mic is being transitioned to them. “Hi everyone, how’s it going?” is a great example, or mentioning the previous speaker(s) to then ease into your speech. It makes the speaker feel better, but increases the time from the switch over until your first point of brilliance is expressed. If you can, take a deep breath and launch directly into your speech without any transitional phrases. The same goes for the end: as you create the last line of the talk, make sure to clearly differentiate between the end of your talk and the start of a toast (for example). Toasts or blessings are not endings, and should be treated as separate from your core talk. 

Many professional speakers, when asked to talk about their most important talks, refer to these social speeches. You may spend your life on a keynote stage, traveling around the world – but perhaps the most important memories you’ll make will be much closer to home. So no matter where you are in your journey of improving your communications skills, now’s the right time to lean in. 

Here’s a toast to your upcoming social speeches – may you give them and give them well, and may you regale all your family and friends with your stories and talks at your next special occasion event. Cheers!

Picture credit: Canva.com
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Boosting Your Confidence Fear of Public Speaking Podcast Public Speaking Nerves

Introducing: The A-Ha! Method Podcast

Episode 01

In this introduction to, and first episode of The A-Ha! Method Podcast, hosts Gabe Zichermann and Dayna Gowan talk through their own different paths to public speaking and the challenges they faced along the way. We’ll also look at why public speaking can be so hard for people – even those who are exceptionally good at other kinds of communication. 

Preview:

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Boosting Your Confidence Fear of Public Speaking Improving Your Presentations Public Speaking Nerves

Conquering your fear of Public Speaking can change your life!

Over the past 7 years, I have been working to overcome my gripping and limiting fear of public speaking. After pushing myself out of my comfort zone and making public speaking improvement a priority, I have found that the benefits of liking and, dare I say, even loving public speaking instead of hating and fearing it are ABSOLUTELY LIFE CHANGING! Here is my story.


Scared.

Nervous.

Shaky hands.

Shaky legs.

Shaky voice.

Face turning bright red like a tomato.

Mind going blank and having no idea what I am saying.

All I want to do is get the presentation over with and sit back down where no one can see me.

That is how I felt during every presentation and speech before I conquered my fear of public speaking.

I always knew I wasn’t a good speaker and presenter – throughout middle school, high school, college, grad school. It just wasn’t my thing. I always struggled with it anytime I had to get in front of a room, and therefore, I hated it and always got nervous anytime a presentation project was mentioned in one of my classes. I had so many theories as to why I wasn’t good at it. For example: I thought I just wasn’t born with this natural ability to speak in front of a crowd like others were. I also thought maybe I would suddenly find this magical confidence at age 35. Why 35? I don’t know, but in my mid-20’s it seemed like an age where I hoped I would stop caring what others thought and be comfortable in my skin. No matter what I did, this fear and anxiety followed me from school projects to my professional life, and I finally had enough.

Where this fear all started

D.A.R.E. Graduation in 5th grade

The D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program involved police officers going to schools and teaching students about the dangers of drugs, alcohol and violence. Their main message, at least in 1998, was to just say “NO!” to all these substances, especially marijuana – a gateway drug to all the other drugs out there. (I’ll save my commentary on that line of thinking for another time.)

After students completed the D.A.R.E. graduation curriculum, they would hold a Graduation Ceremony where students had to say “NO!” to Drugs in front of their parents and family members. I gave it everything I had when I auditioned for the emcee role for the Graduation Ceremony, and I got it! I was probably the only one who tried out for the role, but I was still so excited!

Then the day came for the event. Armed with my index cards in hand, I got up to the microphone in front of the audience, and I froze! I could feel all the eyes on me, the silence was killer, and my hands and legs started shaking uncontrollably. I got terrible, awful stage fright, and I was so upset! This is my first memory of feeling this debilitating stage fright and anxiousness.

I blame D.A.R.E. for all my public speaking woes — not really, but it feels good to have someone else to blame for this problem. Because of the D.A.R.E. program, I struggled for 15 years with addiction. I was addicted… to saying “NO!” to public speaking. That’s my terrible joke, and I am sticking to it.

Since that terrifying time up on stage in 5th grade, I STRUGGLED with public speaking. Middle school, high school, college, grad school – every time I had to give a presentation, I hated it. Even doing introductions on the first day of class had my heart feeling like it was going to pump out of my chest. “Hi, my name is Dayna LeBlanc, and I am taking this course…because it’s required.” Why was that so hard to say??

I dreaded Speech 101 in college, but I luckily made it through that class with an A because only a percentage of the grade was actually based on your speaking ability. My ability to write outlines, complete projects, and study for tests was just fine. My first speech in Speech 101 class was a 4-minute speech on something that has influenced you. I decided to talk about my experience as a senior in high school in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit — a topic I could for sure find four minutes worth of material to talk about. Four minutes seemed like an eternity to me, but when I got up to speak, I ignored my whole outline, went off script (aka rambled), and I ended up talking for 11.5 minutes. There were no timing lights to tell me I was way over time, only the slowly dropping faces of my classmates, who were shocked and overwhelmed at this long, run-on sentence of a story. I got a B+ on the assignment, most likely because the instructor either felt bad for the subject matter of my speech or me as the speaker or both.

My Last Straw Moment

I thought this was a problem that would just plague me in school — maybe I just got nervous in front of my peers, despite the many pep talks I would give myself. “I don’t care what they think about me. I am going to get up and give this presentation and not care at all what they think,” I would tell myself before my presentations. Maybe I didn’t really care what they thought of me, but when I got up in front of them, I sure worried if they could tell how nervous I was. I thought when I got out into the real world that I would be fine — completely poised and professional. But this theory was quickly proven wrong.

Three months into getting my dream job as an Employee Wellness Coordinator at a well-known insurance company in South Carolina, I had to give a wellness presentation to our HR department. The presentation was about Stress Management, and I worked for many days on prepping the slides and my talking points. The day of the presentation, I ran into my manager beforehand, and he told me the HR manager for the group I was presenting to was a Distinguished Toastmaster. I had no idea what that was, but I was 100x more intimidated after that. The pre-speech “I’m not nervous at all” pep talk went out the window, and I became overwhelmed with nerves.

During the presentation, I committed all the big public speaking blunders:

  1. I didn’t introduce myself or my co-worker who came with me, and we were both new to the company,
  2. I talked about how nervous I was — how fitting for a stress management presentation,
  3. And I went way over time – about 15-20 minutes over.

In hindsight, no one died and probably no one who attended that presentation, except for me, remembers how bad it was, but that was the last straw.

After the presentation, I went back to my office, ran to the bathroom and cried. I was so upset that this fear and anxiety of public speaking had followed me from school to my professional life. I was so tired of not getting my message across when presenting and feeling terrible about my performance afterwards. I decided something had to change. I had to get over this crippling fear, for the sake of my career and my well-being.

How I Conquered My Fear

I thought about the Distinguished Toastmaster title — whatever that meant — and I decided to look up Toastmasters. Fortunately, my company had a corporate Toastmasters club that met every Thursday during lunchtime, so I decided to check it out. I visited as a guest for a month or so, and then in October 2014, I made it official and joined as a member. My department paid for my membership, which was nice and supportive. I gave my Icebreaker speech a few weeks after joining. I talked about 2 things that influenced me throughout my life — no, not Hurricane Katrina this time, that was my 2nd speech topic — I talked about my love for volleyball and running. I had nine umms and uhhhs, relied fully on my notes, used lots of unnecessary hand gestures, had a red blotchy face and neck afterwards, and I had to rush my conclusion to stay within timeframe, but I got through it. And no crying in the bathroom afterwards at least!

I gave at least one speech a month, and in June 2015, I had given 10 speeches to reach my Competent Communicator designation. By that 10th speech, I had ZERO filler words, index cards that I didn’t end up using, purposeful movements, and a polished, effective conclusion. I had really pushed myself to get up there and give these speeches, and I found that I enjoyed it, even though I still struggled with it. I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I was a whole lot better than when I started.

My Public Speaking Journey

Six and a half years later, I am still in Toastmasters, and I am enjoying getting to share my stories and practice my content. I also really enjoy hearing others share their stories. In this time, I have accomplished so many goals I NEVER thought I would reach. I got my Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM) designation, meaning I gave over 50 speeches and served in leadership roles, and it took me about five years to do that.

I also competed in contests, which is something I never thought I would do. When I watched the World Championship of Public Speaking Finals as a new Toastmaster, I would think, “I could never do that!” Although I haven’t reached the Finals (yet), I have competed in smaller level contests and won! I won 2nd place in the District 58 Evaluation Contest in 2017, which meant I had to give a 2-3-minute evaluation of a speech. The fact that I am competing and putting myself through these contests is such a win in itself, I don’t really care what place I get, although it is nice to win every now and then.

I also served in leadership roles within my clubs, and I have now served as Club President and other roles for three different clubs. When I was Club President for the first time in 2017-2018, I could see my newfound leadership skills and confidence slowly start to transfer from my Toastmaster meetings to my professional work. I started speaking up in meetings more and advocating for myself and my needs as an employee and also the needs of the department. I started to be viewed as a leader within my department, even though I didn’t have the manager or supervisor title.

It truly is life changing to not be afraid of public speaking or being put on the spot. I don’t second-guess myself (as much) anymore, and I am no longer surprised by this confident person (me!) speaking up and leading meetings. I have embraced this confidence level I never thought I would have, and I have allowed it to take me to new heights — all before the age of 35 too! Another one of my why-I’m-so-bad-at-public-speaking theories now disproven. I have now tried things I never thought I would be able to do, such as lead conference calls and now video calls effectively, give speeches at weddings and funerals, take improv classes, take sketch writing classes, and much more!

What’s next?

I wish I could say the nerves are completely gone and exterminated, but they still show up every now and again. I get upset when the nerves creep into my speeches, but I am much more in control now of my speaking abilities.

I have lots of dreams and goals — I am going to start giving paid presentations as a side business, and I want to continue getting better at improv and sketch writing. It’s absolutely mind boggling how the girl who got so nervous at any mention of a speech or having to speak in front of a crowd now wants to do it as a career. And the fun comedy outlets would never have happened without my firm public speaking foundation and confidence to throw myself into a challenge and try something new. The sky is the limit here, and the only person who can hold me back from achieving my goals is me.

Does public speaking make you nervous?

I often don’t believe it when someone else says it, but it’s so true in this instance – “If I can conquer my fear of public speaking, you can too!” It takes a lot of courage to step outside your comfort zone and make public speaking improvement a priority, but when you do, you will find more than just growth. You will find life-changing confidence that you never thought you would have in your wildest dreams. This new confidence can take you to new heights in your job, your business, and your life if you let it. And this newfound confidence can come at any age too!

There are many ways to overcome your fears of public speaking, and the most important thing is to find the way that works best for you. Toastmasters helped me a ton, but there is a certain level of commitment that takes a lot of time to see results, so it doesn’t work for everyone. If you need quick help overcoming your fears and improving your public speaking skills, check out the online course “Public Speaking in a Time of Distraction: The A-Ha! Method” by award-winning instructor Gabe Zichermann.

We will soon start offering community sessions for course participants to practice their presentations and receive feedback – both helping to overcome those fears and make their presentations and pitches more effective. You can take the course at your leisure and put the included resources to use when you need them the most. Sign up for this helpful professional speaking course today!

Picture credit: Toastmasters Santa Monica Club 21

It has been a long and incredibly tough journey to overcome my fear of public speaking. I am so grateful I did, and I can’t wait to see how far I can go now that I am no longer afraid to speak in front of people.