weed out

How to Declutter Your Communications

By Melody Kimmel, CEO/Founder of MK Media Training LLC

Research shows that more than a third of what listeners respond to in our presentations is the nonverbal dimension – not what we say but how. That includes facial expression, posture, use of hands and all aspects of our vocal delivery. Make your speaking pattern memorable…in a good way. Start by decluttering – weeding out any fillers that may be cluttering your speech. Do you say “um” or “uh” often? These syllables need to go.

Declutter: Diagnosing.

The first step in changing behavior, as always, is raising awareness. Start by recording yourself on an audio or video call and listen for fillers in the playback. Or try the free speech coaching program, Yoodli. Its AI will record you and provide a count on the frequency of filler words and help you decide the question of how many fillers are too many. https://app.yoodli.ai/

Don’t aim for zero. We all utter the occasional um or uh and listeners filter these out. But when filler frequency passes the tipping point, listeners will find it tedious to extract what you’re saying from the dead air of those empty little words.

Play back your recording and listen for ums. When do they pop up the most? When answering questions? Changing topics? Requesting something? When you feel unsure? Become aware of your triggers.


Think. Then speak.

While fillers may feel random, there are spots where they are likeliest to occur. Common spots for filler words: the beginning of a statement, before starting to answer a question, between ideas and at the end of a sentence or thought.

When answering a question, the harder the question, the longer you should pause before starting to speak. Don’t um to buy thinking time as you decide what to say next. Give yourself permission to choose your words. Don’t worry, that brief pause will strike most listeners as conveying thoughtfulness and polish.

When preparing for a presentation, think ahead about how you’ll transition to each new slide and topic. A pause coupled with a crisp introductory statement will help listeners understand that you’re changing direction.

While gathering our thoughts between ideas, we use fillers as placeholders because we worry that we’ll be interrupted while silent. The um or uh guards the space. This fear is understandable in a distracted age: we live under relentless video and audio assault. Silence can be rare – and for many of us, uncomfortable. Confidence is key. Part of commanding attention is knowing that you’re presenting material of interest. Trust that listeners will wait for your next thought.

If you’re speaking in a meeting or other informal setting and people truly are jumping into every open moment to grab the floor, you may need to signal that you’re not done speaking but only pausing in your comments. Instead of the placeholder um, use eye contact and a hand gesture –the raised, open palm — as more vibrant ways to hold attention.

Be clear

Make it clear you’re done speaking.

When you complete a thought — even each sentence — close your mouth. Picture an instant transcript of your comments. Close your mouth each time you hit a period. You can’t um through sealed lips.
This is especially helpful for those who um mostly at the end of their statements. That um confuses listeners about whether you’re done, and by the time they figure out that you are, they’ve likely lost at least some of your final point. Cut out that final um to reveal your clear finish.

Don’t speak until you’re ready.

The best way to avoid using fillers is to take a breath, which nearly always feels longer to us than our listeners. Blame your body’s chemicals: rising adrenaline levels are fueling the nervousness most of us feel when we start to speak in public. As part of its role in getting our bodies ready to fight or flight, adrenaline makes time feel slower because it’s jolted our brains to process much faster than normal.
Remind yourself of this and slow down. If you feel like you’re moving through Jell-o, that’s probably about right. Speaking slower provides that moment to nip a filler in the bud. As you continue speaking, your nerves will likely abate, and you can resume a pace that feels more normal.

Speak up.

In any type of conversation, try speaking a little louder than usual. That will draw your attention to unbidden ums.

Build brain awareness of filler use.

Write the word um on a sticky note. Place it where you will see it often. Increasing your consciousness of the word will help train your brain to hear it and gradually cease and desist.

Keep sentences short.

Your delivery will be punchier and easier to follow. When I rewrite speeches, low-hanging fruit is always to trim long, elaborately constructed sentences. We’re not great processors of oral material anymore and your listeners may lose the thread tucked among various dependent clauses. At the same time, shorter sentences mean you won’t panic that you’re going to forget the rest of a complex thought, requiring less ums as you find your way. It’s a win-win.

Request aversion therapy.

Ask a friend, colleague or significant other to provide a visual sign or annoying sound effect each time they notice you saying um.
Fillers like “ums” and “uhs” are not the only speech clutter. A few more watchouts as you Marie Kondo your public discourse:

Catch overused phrases.

When I counted a podcast guest saying “move the needle” for the third time in five minutes, I could hardly pay attention to anything beyond my amused tally.

Practice slides in advance.

That will prevent ruts like starting each slide with the same phrase, such as the well-worn “In terms of…” Plan how you’ll begin each slide. Nobody will know if you forget a few but you’ll have more variety than if you wing it.

Enunciate and choose your words carefully.

Say each word crisply. Some people’s voices trail off at the end of sentences. Hit consonants slightly harder than normal to ensure comprehension, especially on a phone or video platform. Double the attention paid to enunciation if your audience includes non-native English speakers…or if English is your second language. Avoid Americanisms like baseball metaphors. If you’re contemplating a sparkly vocabulary word, double-check its meaning and pronunciation. Similarly, prepare for any unfamiliar names and practice them in advance.

Clearing out the ums and uhs is guaranteed to spark joy. Your own, for the confidence it builds. And certainly, for your listeners.
For more tips on taking your presentations, interview skills and any other type of public conversation to the next level, visit the ExpressWays section of my website.

Bio, Melody Kimmel, Founder and CEO of MK Media Training, LLC
Melody custom-designs presentation coaching, media training and other types of executive presence training programs. These help prepare spokespersons to be more effective in any aspect of persuasive message communications, including media interviews as well as for presentations and other outreach to investors, customers, employees, regulators, and other stakeholders. She founded her company in 2018 after nearly three years leading MSL’s training practice, which followed more than two decades culminating as the lead and sole full-time communications trainer at FleishmanHillard North America.
She works across industries, with particular depth in healthcare, biotechnology and consumer marketing. Recent clients include Ford Motor Company, Pfizer, Gilead Sciences, Experian, the Ad Council, and Saks.

Dan Ram ignites the stage as an in-person event and virtual event MC/ Moderator & Speaker at over 100 events a year. He has shared the stage with international luminaries including President Barack Obama, Sir Richard Branson, Reid Hoffman, Nico Rosberg, and Grammy-winning artists and celebrities. He has also been recognized as a Top 40 under 40 leader 2020 as well as a Top 100 Yale Alumni in Technology 2021. Level up your communication skills through his course and mastermind “Speaking Success”. His passion is to inspire people with his motto ‘Start Now Start Simple’ in building a future we all want to live in.

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