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Phoenix Forward

Is your speech, um, like hurting your career?

Watch out for filler words

Among all the reasons I had to hate my father when I was a teenager, none gave me more pleasure than the “like game.” It was simple: I’d talk to my father, and every time I used the word “like,” he’d raise a finger. Let’s just say I rarely used similes, and by the time I was finished telling him about my day, he was flashing 10 fingers at me.

In high school, I hated him for it. Now, as an adult, I’m thankful he did it.

Filler words and other vocal tics can hurt your professional image. “Not only are they annoying,” says Bonnie Ellis, PhD, a public-speaking trainer, “but they also distract from the speaker’s message.”

Ellis, an instructor at the University of Phoenix Detroit Campus and director of academic affairs for the College of Humanities and Sciences, developed the "Awareness and Control Method" of public speaking. She says you can become a better communicator by controlling these three vocalizations:


Filler Words

Problem: Using filler words, such as um, ah, you know, OK and like, can hurt your credibility in professional situations.

“Normally, when presenting or interviewing, you have adrenaline going,” Ellis says. “That tends to make a person talk faster. To give themselves time to think, they fill the blank space with a filler word.” Additionally, some people use filler words to keep the floor because, if you stop speaking, you open up the opportunity for someone else to jump in.

Solution: Ellis recommends videotaping yourself before public-speaking events, important meetings and interviews so you can play it back, hear how you sound and make any necessary corrections. The exercise alone can help build your confidence if you repeat it enough to see a difference in your speech patterns.


Vocal Fry

Problem: Most common in young women, vocal fry is the “low, staccato vibration during speech.” Ellis says it’s not something you want to have for professional speaking. “People pick up on this and end up paying more attention to it than your actual message.”

Solution: “Vocal fry makes vocal cords smack together, and its long-term effects can damage your voice,” Ellis explains. She says that the first step to correcting vocal fry is becoming aware that you’re using it. Then, you have to want to change, which is often an impediment when the vocalization is a trendy one used by the likes of Kim Kardashian and Britney Spears.



Problem: Up-talking is when individuals finish statements as if they were questions. “It’s associated with valley girl talk,” Ellis says. “You see it in individuals who are not confident in what they’re saying, so they look for validation.” Ellis adds that this is something formed by habit, often from a young age.

Solution: Like vocal fry and using filler words, up-talking can’t be corrected until you recognize the problem. Ellis suggests having close friends and family members hold you accountable to fixing it by pointing out when you slip, a process that can be uncomfortable but effective with any vocal tic. Once your loved ones help you see how and when you use these vocal crutches, you can then work to remove them from your speech once and for all.

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