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by Cathy Vandewater | July 28, 2011


Presenting yourself well is easier said than done for most.

First, most of us have at least a mild-to-moderate fear of public speaking; some of us literally fear it more than death. So it's very tough to be self aware while battling sweaty palms and an adrenaline rush to rival your first attempt at snowboarding.

Legally Blonde

Second, as speech is something we  do all the time, we easily entrench ourselves in bad habits. It's no wonder, then, that public speaking feels so defeating: we revert back to our old ways, just as it's time to be well-spoken. Then, as we stammer and feel stupid and insecure, the "likes" and "uhs" come out in full force.

Not hard to see why Abe Lincoln recommended silence as the key to a good reputation, is it?

Luckily, it's easy to get practice speaking. If you start catching yourself um-ing and er-ing in low pressure situations, you can start to boost your verbal dexterity long before your next meeting—and knock 'em dead without even trying.

But first, a diagnosis: are you making any of these verbal blunders?

1. Filler words or phrases

"Like," "you know"—these are the most common offenders. But I once knew a man who finished every sentence with " …on it." Huh?

Often, filler words are less about which ones you use and more about the fact that they're a means of distracting from your main idea. You may think that's an undesirable effect—and it is—but for the less-than-confident speaker, diluting meaning is a way of wriggling out of the responsibility of having an opinion. When you use filler phrases, you never declare something—you like, sort declare it, you know?

This can help get off you off the hook for being wrong, but it also takes away the satisfying snap of saying something right.

2. Ending sentences as a question?

Here's a quick Litmus test: when the barista at Starbucks asks what name to put on your cup, how do you answer? "Matt?" "Jessica?"


The barista doesn't know your name, so don't ask her. She asked you, remember?

Practice delivering your answers with authority, not apologies. And when speaking, remind yourself: your thought is not up for debate. At least not until after you finish saying it, with a proper period.

3. A deathly fear of silence

"Um" and "er" are a mere symptom of a bigger problem: discomfort with pauses in speech. New studies show they may serve a purpose; a slight pause before a word accompanied by an "um" signals to a child that a word he's about to hear is important. And cold callers have known for years that a few "ers" or "uhs" can help their canned pitches sound more off the cuff and sincere.

But pause-fillers can also have an ill effect of making you look unprepared, or nervous. And generally, they're regarded by seasoned speakers as a sure sign of an amateur. A second or two of silence, on the other hand, shows command, control, and yes, confidence. Go ahead: take a moment.

4. Lazy delivery

For the best possible example of how many Americans speak today, find comedian Louis C.K.'s impression of numbskulls their slurring their words together, barely projecting, and rambling in monotone.

You may not be an idiot, but unless you speak with purposeful "snap," as Louis would put it, you may be coming off as not-so-bright, or worse, lazy. To avoid giving listeners on a conference call an image of you slouching on your couch with a dish of ice cream on your chest, sit up straight while speaking, use complete sentences (that come to an end!), and pronounce your words an energy that communicates you care about the listener's experience. Because you do, right?

5. Not Listening

So technically, this isn't a speech issue, per se--though we all know that person that fakes listening with a rapid-fire "Right, right, right."

Rather, sharing the soap box with others and incorporating their feedback does dual action to improve your audience's reception and your message: it keeps your listener engaged, and enables you to adjust your tone or message as necessary.

So ask yourself—do you talk over others who try to put in a word? Allow enough pauses between sentences for others to interject? Check for understanding with your listener and ask for their input?

Abe Lincoln may have had a point after all: silence, when used deliberately, can speak volumes about character. Make sure you're using it.

--Cathy Vandewater,


Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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