‘So’, ‘like’, ‘I mean’… Many presenters rely on filler words like these to cover up an awkward gap or buy themselves time. But is it possible to train yourself out of such vague vocal patterns?
A while back, I read an article by renowned BBC broadcaster John Humphrys deprecating the use of the word ‘so’ at the start of a sentence, rather than as a conjunction to join things up.
I agree. Used in this way, especially at the start of a presentation, a ‘so’ can weaken your all-important initial statement, as it sounds like you're beginning in mid-thought. Thinking back to any of the most powerful speeches in history, it’s hard to imagine that putting ‘so’ in front of their first word would have added to their impact.
‘So’ is also often used by speakers to buy time before answering a question too. In fact, it’s so prevalent in presentations and talks these days that it’s often easy to miss altogether. Until you start listening out for it, that is, and then you can’t hear anything else. Next time you are part of an audience, notice how often you hear it.
Used in this way, words like ‘so’ are fillers designed to fill a space the speaker finds uncomfortable or buy themselves a moment’s time as they think of an answer to a question. Other such fillers include ‘right’, ‘actually’, ‘basically’, ‘I mean’, and ‘like’. Because they come across as vague and evasive, they can detract from your effectiveness as a speaker.
But what could you say instead, and is it even possible to train yourself out of one vocal pattern and into another?
Weeding out your fillers
The surprisingly simple answer to what to say instead is: nothing. Silence is very often the best option, as it makes the speaker appear more in control, and suggests you are respecting the question by preparing a considered response.
As to shifting your own vocal pattern, start by observing your own speech to see which filler expressions you use. Practise replacing your ‘so’ or ‘basically’ with silence, perhaps starting in a non-pressurised environment, for example with friends and family. When one is about to pop out, simply try pausing instead. Your loved ones will never know and it won't matter.
You could also ask trusted colleagues to comment every time you say ‘I mean’ or ‘you know’. It’s a tougher approach but often the results are quicker.
Often this awareness-raising, supported by practice, can be all it takes to shift a particular vocal pattern.
On the other hand, don’t worry if you don’t see instant results. Vocal patterns take a lifetime to develop, so it’s no surprise if they don't disappear overnight. But it’s much easier to ask the brain to replace one vocal habit with another than it is to simply ask it to stop doing something all together.