Vocal tics – also known as vocal fillers – are unnecessary sounds or words that litter your speaking voice, whether it’s your every-day voice or your presenting voice.
Adding tics to your every-day voice is something you’ve acquired over time, because of your culture or heritage, society in general, or – my sincere apologies for the insult – sheer laziness. Other vocal fillers are exclusive to your presentation voice. They’re typically caused by two things – a lack of clarity of what you want to say, or nervousness – and oftentimes one feeds the other so that your fillers become (excuse the pun) more pronounced.
Without going into the details of speech pathology, vocal fillers fall into two loose groups: syllables and words.
My first speech teacher called tics of syllables sloppy words. They are guttural noises like um, ah, uhh and er.
Words can be single fillers (such as like, totally and right) or short phrases (such as you know and am I right?). I use English examples, but every language and cultural has its own vocal fillers. The barista in Sydney begins every sentence with the word mate. A Swedish cousin ends every sentence with ja? (Yes?). Go here if you’re curious about other fillers.
Here’s some advice and tips to address and eliminate vocal tics. But like most habits, it takes continual awareness and practice to get rid of them.
My Grandma once caught me lying to her, and she said, “Do you hear yourself talking?” She’d likely ask you the same question about your vocal filler. People often don’t know they use fillers in their conversation because few of us listen intently to what actually comes out of our mouth. Other people know they use fillers, but don’t care. A person recently attended my workshop and upon hearing herself speak, said she didn’t care. In fact, she welcomed it. “It’s my signature,” she said. Fair enough. But is it a positive or a negative signature? We’ve all heard at least one presenter who relentlessly overuses a phrase. It’s not just annoying. The repeated phrase becomes what we focus on, so instead of remembering what the presenters says, we remember the irritation. In the end, decide if a repetitious word or phrase is an asset. It rarely is.
Filler is an apt description. Psychological research suggests people use these tics because there’s an underlying need by the presenter to fill up the air. They want to keep talking, either because they want to keep the floor, prevent other people from talking, or stop people from asking questions. Some fillers are called hesitations, because their brain isn’t 100% clear on what they want to say. So, a hesitation drops into their voice while their brain decides what words to use. In either case, Michael Larcombe – writing in The New Scientist (1995) – explained it using this clever metaphor. “In order to keep the floor while we hesitate, we place dummy words in the empty spaces between our words, much as we might drape our coats on a seat at the cinema to prevent others from taking it.”
It’s easier to get rid of a vocal tic when you can isolate where you hesitate in the sentence. There are three options.
- Amanda uses a filler at the beginning of the sentence, as a ramp-up into the sentence itself. An example: “Ahh – so today I’d like to talk about …” If this describes you, make a deliberate effort to start every sentence with a specific word, not a sound.
- Bobby uses a filler to connect sentences together, combining a guttural sound with the word and. An example: “We sold 15% of our stock last quarter … err … and our other stores had comparative sales figures.” If this describes you, make a deliberate effort to end a sentence – and start the next sentence – with a specific word. Speak each sentence as its own message or thought. I coach people to avoid compound sentences. An alternative to Bobby’s example would be “We sold 15% of our stock last quarter. Our other stores had comparative sales figures.”
- Cindy uses a filler at the end of the sentence. An example: “Thanks for listening, ummm.” Placing a tic at the end of a sentence is almost always a cultural tic, such as the Swedish example above or how some native Singaporeans end sentences with the word lah. Because they’re cultural, people tell me they’re less noticeable. Perhaps true if your audience comprises only one ethic group. But those days are dwindling. So, as before, the focus should be to end the sentence with a specific word, not a sound or a word.
I can hear y’all groan from afar. However, recording your speaking voice is an effective way to address the problem of tics, primarily because the problem (if there is one) is now 100% real. Some people take it a step further and film themselves on camera, not just capture the voice. That’s fine – but focus on one aspect at a time. It’s easy to get side-tracked with all aspects of non-verbal communications and the vocal tic gets lost.
If you are filmed, the best thing to do is to turn away or block the screen so you focus on your voice. Most people – well over half, I’d say – use one dominant filler in their talking voice, not several. Isolate it. Think about where you use it. At the beginning, middle or end of the sentence? Now you can focus on removing it.
Many people absolutely cannot stand listening to themselves. If so, your final option is to ask people around you to be brutally honest. They give you a ‘signal’ every time you use the offending filler. Depending upon the situation and your preference, signals might be subtle or audible.
Subtle signals might be a person who scratches their ear lobe (very discreet in meetings), or audience members who slightly raises a finger, a hand or a pencil as an alert. Audible signals might be a person saying the offending word when the speaker does. These are unobtrusive signals. For some, disruptive signals are more to their liking. I’ve heard of people clinking their drinking glasses or rapping the table-top with their knuckles. A friend in the UK likes to make it fun by asking audience members to throw harmless paper balls at the speaker to get them to stop saying vocal tics. I tried it once, but it got too silly for my taste. I think it works well to demonstrate to the speaker how often they use a filler. I’m not sure it helps to actually get rid of the tic. Again, find one method that works for you. In my experience, self-censure tips are difficult to enforce if you don’t have 100% discipline. Having a second set of friendly and constructive ears to keep the attention high is often more helpful, and in the end, more effective.