It’s important to practice your speech before the big day or event. Speakers Alliance can be your test audience and give you crucial feedback before you get in front of your real audience!
Each month the Speakers Alliance runs two FREE Public Speaking Practice Sessions for participants looking to improve their public speaking skills. Anyone who wants to practice a presentation, speech, sales pitch, social occasion speech, etc. is welcome to join and participate! If you do not have a speech or pitch prepared, you can still attend and listen to others practice and ask questions during the Q&A period.
Talks can be up to 5-6 minutes long. If you have a longer speech, just pick a portion you want to practice. The panel will provide up to 3-5 minutes of feedback after your talk.
Here are our scheduled September public speaking practice sessions:
Winning Virtually at Sales and Public Speaking with Nitya Kirat
Nitya Kirat, Founder and CEO of YOSD Consulting, joins us to discuss how to improve virtual sales meetings and how public speaking can help improve your sales skills, even if you aren’t a salesperson by trade. We talk with Nitya about some of the techniques and tips he provides in his recently published book Winning Virtually: 10 Tiny Habits For Big Virtual Selling Success.
Nitya has a great mindset and approach to sales, and he even used some of the techniques in his book to answer Gabe’s tough questions about sales, which was very impressive! We learned that not being scared of sales is the first step to improving your relationship with sales and then improving your techniques and processes can take your professional and personal sales transactions to a new level so that all parties involved feel like they are winning!
Nitya has built, delivered, and coached sales and sales leadership development programs at companies including PIMCO, BlackRock, Allianz Global Investors, MetLife, Google, Causeway Capital, and Transamerica.
Nitya has worked in sales and consulting roles for the past 18 years. He was an award-winning salesperson at Schering-Plough and UBS prior to starting YOSD. Nitya’s sales strategies have also been influenced by his global perspectives, having lived and worked in several parts of the world including Singapore, India, Tanzania, and Belgium.
Nitya received a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from New Jersey Institute of Technology and an M.B.A from the UCLA Anderson School of Management, where he is an active Director on the UCLA Anderson Alumni Board.
He lives in Los Angeles and loves to watch and play soccer whenever he can.
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!
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:
I remember my grandfather – whose BMI was much lower than mine – carrying a handkerchief in the dead of winter to mop his ever-sweaty brow. My larger frame (thicc by today’s standards) has made me even more sweaty in every aspect of my life.
In general, I’ve come to terms with it. But when you’re watching your TED talk and see your arms lifted with sweat stains clearly visible through your dress shirt, it feels like too much. Being sweaty at the gym or beach poses minimal professional risk, but – even if people won’t tell you to your face – a super sweaty body or handshake isn’t great when you’re trying to bill $10,000/hour.
Over my 20 years of paid, professional speaking I’ve tried almost everything to ameliorate this problem, from potions to just giving up and embracing my body’s quirks. Eventually I settled on a few tricks and strategies that have served me well. If you’re not a super-sweater, you might still find these useful – because even Zoom doesn’t hide those pits. And as any sweaty person knows, once you’re conscious of your sweat, it makes it almost impossible to focus on anything else (e.g. the speech you’re supposed to give).
Antiperspirant is the first way most people try to solve this problem. But because adrenaline and increased blood pressure tend to increase sweating, speeches are more likely than most situations to “break through” supermarket brands. I recommend switching to a clinical-strength antiperspirant that you carry with you for talks (live or online). Asking your doctor for a recommendation is a great way to start. Don’t use the stuff regularly, or you’ll develop a tolerance for it (and potential other health complications) – so keep it for the “special” occasions of your speaking. If you don’t wear any antiperspirant on most occasions or days, you’ll find that the selective application of the stuff will help you on the days you need it most.
Adding layers of undergarments can be a good go-to, but there’s a delicate balance between stopping your sweat from showing and raising your basal body temperature through excessive clothing. If you are an undershirt kind of person, a brand I’ve found to be highly effective is Eji’s. They make a line of “sweat proof” items that have a special liner to prevent your pits – and other parts – from showing. Whatever you do, don’t double up on undershirts or underwear – it will only make you hotter, and definitely won’t help.
The big secret of professional public speakers is the use of a strategic blazer. Men, women and non-binary speakers can find a range of great blazers that look good, project the right image, and help you keep from showing your sweat. The key is to not take the blazer off after your talk until the situation has calmed down, so to speak. This can be especially difficult in venues with inadequate air conditioning, but it’s a low price to pay for protection. And pro tip: black is both slimming and hides sweat the best.
While your hands being sweaty during your talk is normal and really no big deal, sweaty hands after a talk – particularly when shaking them with prospective clients or event bookers – can be a major no-no. Take a minute after you’re done pitching or speaking from the stage to go to the restroom, wash your hands, dry them thoroughly, and return to the action in the venue. If that is impossible, a small amount of hand sanitizer (which you probably have at all times nowadays) and a handkerchief in your pocket can give your palms a quick refresh. Of course, you can also always use the pandemic as an excuse to elbow bump instead.
Body Temperature Regulation
There’s a reason that most TV studios are freezing cold. This serves two purposes: to keep the equipment and the hosts from overheating. Sweat ruins clothes, makeup and a 4K high-def close up, and the same will be true for you as a speaker. Now, you may not have control of the venue’s temperature – and particularly if you’re in Europe, the venue will most likely be on the warm side – but there are things you can do. First, dress for the venue prior to your talk. If it’s warm (and you’ll know because you followed my advice to scope it out beforehand), keep your blazer off and/or wear lighter clothes prior to the start of your talk. Don’t shower, work out or otherwise over-exert yourself in the hour before your speech or pitch begins, and do what you can to keep yourself calm. If you’re broadcasting from home – turn down the AC as low as it will go and freeze your room before the talk starts – you can set it back to a normal/cool temperature once you’re finished. And remember to drink lots of water…but not so much that you can’t time your bathroom breaks.
Excessive sweating can become a clinical condition called Hyperhidrosis. Even if you don’t have this rare but often-debilitating issue, you can suffer from sweating that is “excessive” (a social, not medical construct) during and after important talks. The critical thing to remember, of course, is that this is perfectly normal. You should feel sweaty during and after a talk because you put your heart and soul into it, and that nervous reaction is absolutely natural. However, if you don’t feel confident and comfortable in your body under those circumstances, it will affect your performance. And the most critical thing is to ensure that your talk goes well, that you land your points, and that the audience is changed by what you have to say. Anything that gets in the way of that – and it’s usually something in your head – is detrimental to success. That’s why we teach the importance of practice, confidence and content-centricity in our self-directed online course, The A-Ha! Method.
The phrase “Never let them see you sweat” was coined by advertising guru Phil Slott in his 1980s commercials for the antiperspirant Dry Idea. It caught on precisely because of its broader meaning: that you need to project confidence and calm, no matter how you’re feeling inside, if you want to conquer the highest peaks of your profession. Public speaking, pitching and meeting management are types of performance, and good performers invest in managing their sweat to create the right impression.
The content comes first. But staying high and dry is always a good idea.
As humans, we experience procrastination motivation in many aspects of our lives—exercising, losing weight, improving our overall health and well-being, studying for a test, completing a project, saving for retirement, etc. I call myself the “ultimate procrastinator” because I have lived most of my life waiting until the last minute to do everything.
In general, people also procrastinate improving their public speaking skills until they absolutely need to! Most people, myself included, need a catalyst or a swift kick in the butt to get motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Work meetings and presentations are big motivators in shining a light on our public speaking skills, or lack thereof.
Here are a few scenarios of how this public speaking catalyst process usually works:
Your manager asks you to prepare and give a big presentation at work. Panic sets in!
You were put on the spot at a big meeting and did not answer as strongly as you wanted.
You just gave a big presentation at work that completely bombed! (Exactly what happened to me 7 years ago.)
And now you are finally motivated to make some changes and work on improving your public speaking skills!
While I am all for people finding any and all motivation to improve their public speaking skills, I want to give you a different kind of motivation today:
Start improving your skills now, instead of when you have a big presentation or speech to do. If you start working on your skills now, then you will be in a much better position to give the speech or presentation when the next opportunity comes up, and trust me, opportunities will come up!
Here are some ideas on how to improve your public speaking skills a little bit at a time:
Take a public speaking course.
Don’t rush through it. Take your time going through the content and try to apply different skills in your speeches. I have taken 3-hour public speaking workshops before, and while they are very helpful and informative, they do not provide the most opportunities to practice your skills that you may need. Find the right course and the right pace that works for you.
Give one speech per month.
If you don’t have a professional/work topic, that’s okay. Tell a story about a special time in your life. Storytelling looks easy and is so lovely when done well, but it is difficult to do in an engaging and effective way.
The interval here is really up to you, but once a month can help to keep you on track and see improvement quickly. I know other people who do a speech once a quarter. That works as well, just remember the progress may be slower.
Listen to Ted Talks or start to notice other speakers in your workplace—what makes their speeches so great or not so great?
I have learned so much from just watching people speak and making notes on what worked and what didn’t work. That is such a comforting thought to me too that I don’t always have to be speaking to learn how to improve. I can learn by watching others.
It’s easy to watch good speakers and say, “Wow, that person is a naturally great speaker. I could never do that EVER.” Instead of thinking that way, list all the techniques they used that made their speech great, and think about how to incorporate some of those techniques into your next speech.
Find ways to enjoy public speaking!
This is where the intrinsic or internal motivation kicks in. Once you start to enjoy it, you will want to do it more often!
Listen to stories on The Moth, listen to podcasts, or watch your favorite influencers or vloggers on Youtube. All these speakers on these platforms are using their public speaking skills to get their message across (mostly for good, but I’ll let you be the judge of that).
Once you realize that public speaking can be about telling stories and being your authentic self in front of people, it takes the fear and dread out of the task and makes it more exciting and fun. Bring that excitement and fun into your mundane work presentations. It can be done, I promise!
Speakers Alliance offers several opportunities for people to practice and improve their public speaking skills. We have a course on Udemy, weekly community practice sessions that are free and open to everyone, and we have recently released a podcast talking about different public speaking issues and topics. If our style doesn’t work for you, that is absolutely fine. There are many tools and trainings out there to help you. The most important thing is to find the training and practice that works for you and your schedule.
My public speaking mantra is “Say Yes, Speak More.” If you live in Los Angeles long enough, you will start making mantras for yourself, but this personal mantra has motivated me to tackle big public speaking opportunities that I originally wanted to turn down because I was scared and afraid. Say yes to public speaking and say yes to the speaking opportunities that come up in your life. Say yes to improving your public speaking skills NOW rather than waiting until “later.” Because if you wait until “later,” it may never get done, and then you will be missing out on all the benefits of improved confidence, communication, and connection with your audience that you could be enjoying right now.