Your hands get sweaty. Your heart starts beating faster. Fortunately, if you're presenting onstage or even meeting face-to-face, no one can really tell.

The real dead giveaway you're nervous? You start using filler words like "so," "um," and "you know." And for us Millennials, it's the dreaded "like."

In a recent New York Times piece, reporter Christopher Mele explores how we are perceived when we use these verbal fillers. He spoke with a communications expert, linguist, and public speaking professor. In his reporting, he found these anxiety-induced verbal ticks can lead people to believe we're less intelligent than we really are. We come off as unprepared, lacking confidence, and even incompetent.

What filler words say about you

The habit is especially detrimental the younger you are. "Newcomers who use as many interjections as seasoned professionals will be seen as less credible, because they do not have the years of experience," The New York Times reports.

A Millennial speaking to a fellow Millennial won't get slammed for using "like," because it's commonplace for this generation. But if a Millennial is speaking to a Gen-Xer, the older person is likely to perceive the younger as less intelligent.

What strong public speakers do instead

Of course, no one wants to lean on the crutches of "um" or "like" when we're speaking. Sometimes, we simply can't help it. Susan Mackey-Kallis, who teaches public speaking at at Villanova University, told The New York Times that these words tumble out of our mouths when we're trying to think of the next thing to say. As we are speaking, the cadence picks up, meaning our words get ahead of our thoughts.

So how to stop? Try this hack many public speakers use when they need a second for their thoughts to catch up. Pause. Just stop talking. Instead of using a filler word, say nothing. Gather your thoughts. Believe it or not, the silence is far more powerful than an "um" or a "like."

Which fillers are your crutch?

The advice is simple, but it's not easy to follow. It feels unnatural and a bit uncomfortable to embrace a few seconds of silence. To get serious about correcting the habit, you'll first need to be aware of which verbal fillers you lean on most.

One of the experts quoted in the Times piece is Lisa B. Marshall, the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation. The public speaking consultant tells people to record their conversations, then listen to themselves speaking for five minutes a day. After a week, Marshall ensures you'll be well aware of which fillers are most prevalent in your conversations. "You need to be able to hear your disfluencies in your mind before you blurt them out," she says. When an "um," "like" or "you know" is on the tip of your tongue, consciously decide to say nothing instead.

Like anything, it takes practice to eliminate a verbal filler from your vocabulary. It's a habit that's hard to break. Here's an idea: Employ a device like the Pavlok to zap you every time you utter a filler word. The company claims it can help you break a bad habit in five days.

Published on: Feb 27, 2017
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