So, how do you, like, um, stop using verbal fillers that can make you sound, you know, nervous or not so smart?

Is there a name for this?

Communications experts describe “um,” “aah,” “you know” and similar expressions as discourse markers, interjections or verbal pauses.

They often occur when we are trying to think of the next thing we are going to say, Susan Mackey-Kallis, an associate professor at Villanova University who teaches public speaking, said in an email.

When stakes are high or we are nervous – in a job or media interview, or during a speech, presentation or conference call — we tend not to breathe as much and we talk faster, so our words get ahead of our thoughts, Lisa B. Marshall, a communications expert and the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker’s Guide to Success in Every Situation, said in an interview.

In some cases, the phrases are used to signal that you are about to say something and that the person listening should not interrupt, or that you are going to say something you want to emphasise, said Emily Tucker Prud’hommeaux, an assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a leader of its Computational Linguistics and Speech Processing Lab.

“In fact, if you listen to someone use ‘like’, you’ll sometimes notice that the next noun or verb or adjective that comes along sounds more prominent,” she said in an email. “You want the listener to pay attention.”

Does this make me sound stupid?

In short, everyone relies on verbal fillers.

Marshall said she had not seen any research attributing speech patterns to certain demographics but had noticed that “like” is used heavily by the younger generation, “so” by those in their 30s and “uptick” or “upspeak” — ending a declarative sentence in such a way that it sounds like a question — by women in their 20s and 30s.

Mackey-Kallis said “like”, as a speech affectation of young speakers, is perceived as “cool” or “generational speak.”

“You will notice that ‘like’ often infects the speech patterns of 20-somethings more so than the speech of 40-somethings,” she wrote.

“The use of the verbal pause ‘like’ conveys social solidarity among members of this age cohort, but is perceived as less intelligent by older listeners.”

If everyone does it, what’s the harm?

“Once you start into the pattern, it becomes a crutch,” Marshall said. It is not uncommon for people to use filler phrases such as “like”, “so” and “you know,” but it becomes a problem when the phrases are overused to the point of distraction.

She compared it to vulgarity: The occasional use is acceptable but when too frequent, it loses its meaning and signals to listeners that the person speaking is lazy about language.

It also matters when the speech “disfluency” occurs, Marshall said. If it happens before a thought is expressed, the speaker is more likely to be perceived as lacking confidence or competence, or as being unprepared. It if happens in the middle of a thought, the speaker is judged less harshly.

Speakers who are well known in their professions but overuse verbal pauses are still perceived as credible because they have built a reputation. Audience members will chalk up those habits to just the way they talk, Marshall said.

For instance, when Justice Antonin Scalia of the US Supreme Court spoke, his “discourse was nearly always crammed with fillers,” Sean P. O’Rourke, director of the Center for Speaking and Listening at Sewanee: The University of the South, in Tennessee, noted in an email.

But newcomers who use as many interjections as seasoned professionals will be seen as less credible because they do not have the years of experience.

Andy Mangum, a speech instructor at Brookhaven College in Dallas, said in an email that “so” had become the new “like”.

“I noticed it happening frequently in interviews,” he said. “People are asked a question, and they preface their answer with an elongated ‘soooo....’ It used to sound intelligent. Now, not so much.”

How do you, like, stop it then?

Awareness is the first step, Marshall said. She recommended that clients record themselves in conversations and listen to the recordings five minutes a day for two weeks.

“Trust me, after a week of listening, or recording and listening, you’ll have become acutely aware of your specific problems,” she wrote in a blog post. “You need to be able to hear your disfluencies in your mind before you blurt them out.”

Speakers need to relax and take a deep breath when finishing a thought. A focus on breathing will make it more difficult to introduce a wayward expression.

Substitute silence for the verbal fillers, Marshall added. That might be awkward at first, but it is better to have a moment of quiet than a distracting “you know” or “um.”

Prud’hommeaux suggested a more hands-on approach: “If no one has come up with it yet, maybe we need an app that would shock you whenever it hears you say ‘like.’ Or hire a friend to punch you whenever you say it.”

–New York Times News Service