I was recently facilitating a branding off-site for a client, who had also arranged for several industry experts to come in and present. One of the speakers, despite being clearly well-informed in her topic -- was almost impossible to listen to. Why?

She said the word "like." Over a 90-minute period, I counted her use of the word "like" more than, well, like, 50 times. 

At first, I thought it was just me and my pesky pet peeves about the power of language. But at the lunch break, several of my fellow attendees mentioned (albeit nicely) that they had trouble focusing on her content due to her constant use of the word "like." Some of the comments included: 

  • "I really think it hurt her message." 
  • "I was so distracted by her use of the word 'like,' I couldn't really get everything she was saying." 
  • "I'm surprised she doesn't understand how unprofessional this makes her look." 

This wasn't the first time I'd come face to face with this four-letter brand buster. My good friend May (an audio book director) had pointed out this cultural communication problem to me when I was at her home six months prior. 

But today the word "like" most often serves as what is officially knows as a slang interjection filler, a lazy way of talking that creeps from popular culture into our personal vocabularies. For example:

  • "He's, like, really unhappy with the new logo." 
  • "We sent out, like, 1,500 email messages."
  • "I asked him for the report, and he was like, 'It's not going to happen today.'"
  • "She's, like, pretty frustrated with the new policy."

Apparently, the world "like" has become the filler of choice. Apparently, we can squarely put the blame for this phenomenon on what is known as Valleyspeak or Mallspeak -- a type of dialect spoken by teenage girls during the 1970s at malls across the San Fernando Valley in California and brought to national attention by Frank Zappa's Top 40 hit song "Valley Girl." 

While it's mildly irritating if a teenager speaks this way, when it comes out of the mouth of an adult, it can be a career tanker. 

Using the word "like" improperly and consistently lowers the impact of our message, diminishes our overall professionalism and tarnishes our personal brand. So, like, stop it. But how? Here are a few simple ways you can bring an awareness to your use of the word and reclaim your oratory power. 

Pay attention.

During that same visit to my friend May's house, she, her husband and I all made an effort to catch ourselves (and each other) anytime we used the dreaded "like." We were shocked at how often it automatically escaped our lips. Applying simple mindfulness can help eliminate the expression. 

Use more descriptive words.

For many of us, the use of "like" is simply a lazy way of talking. As the saying goes, "Use your words," and replace "like" with what you really mean to say. For example, consider how much smarter you sound when the above sentences are rewritten. 

Valleyspeak: He's, like,really unhappy with the new logo. 

English: He's definitely unhappy with the new logo. 

Valleyspeak: We sent out, like, 1,500 email messages.

English: We sent out around 1,500 email messages. 

Valleyspeak: I asked him for the report, and he was like, 'It's not going to happen today.'"

English: I asked him for the report, and he informed me, 'That's not going to happen today.'"

Valleyspeak: She's, like, pretty frustrated with the new policy.

English: She's expressing a great deal of frustration with the new policy.

Slow down, take a breath and pause.

The faster you speak, the harder it is to catch yourself just before the little bugger comes out of your mouth. Slowing down enough to be more aware of what you are saying helps you pick and choose your words more carefully --rather than unconsciously. 

Find new fillers.

When you find yourself needing to express that quality of "not quite; very nearly," try using an appropriate substitution such as: 

  • Nearly 
  • Approximately 
  • Almost 
  • Virtually 
  • Roughly 
  • Just about
  • More or less
  • Practically
  • Virtually
  • All but
  • As good as
  • Next to
  • Close to
  • Not quite 

Say "said" not "like."

In many cases the word "like" is used in conjunction with what another personal has said; for example, "He was like, 'I don't know how that happened.'" The simple solution here is to get into the habit of using the word "said" instead of "like." As in "He said, 'I don't know how that happened.'" 

One final note here. I, in fact, grew up in The San Fernando Valley in the early '70s and have been both a perpetrator and a victim of Valleyspeak. Since my come-to-communication moment with May, however, I've been working diligently to eliminate the "like" habit, and I think I'm doing much better. But I mean, like, you know, nobody's perfect.