The easiest way to sound nervous or, even worse, stupid and silly is to lean on what communications experts call “verbal fillers”—words in the vein of “like”, “um”, or “you know.”
Everyone uses verbal fillers in some form or another, because they give us room to think about what we want to say next, especially in high-pressure situations where we feel our word choice is critical.
Lisa B. Marshall, author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker’s Guide to Success in Every Situation, told the New York Times that verbal fillers are like vulgarity: Occasional use is acceptable, but if the speaker leans on it too frequently, meaning is compromised and people assume the speaker is lazy. “Once you start into the pattern, it becomes a crutch,” she said.
How do you clean up your word choice and speak more effectively? You have to listen to yourself. Marshall recommends that people record themselves in real-world conversations and listen to the recordings for five minutes a day for two weeks. The repetition will drill the problem into your head and make you more conscious of it when communicating further.
The best way to substitute filler words without leaning on a new verbal crutch is actually to just be quiet. Give yourself some time to think on your words and focus instead on taking a breath. Sitting in silence might be weird at first, but when the alternative is sounding like a teenager, we’ll opt for looking thoughtful every time.
“Trust me, after a week of listening, or recording and listening, you’ll have become acutely aware of your specific problems,” Marshall wrote. “You need to be able to hear your disfluencies in your mind before you blurt them out.”