At what point would you stop listening to a speaker who opens with: "So, OK, I wanted to just briefly, you know, give you an overview, I think ..."

This is how Ian, a director at a scientific research institute, recently started one of our coaching sessions. (I'm changing any identifying information to protect client confidentiality.)

As you might guess, people tune Ian out because his speech is littered with meaningless fillers. Worse, they frequently interrupt him because they worry he'll waste their time.

Even though Ian is brilliant, visionary, and prolific in his research, he struggles to earn respect as a leader. Team members often emerge from meetings with him confused and unsure of what he wanted.

Increase your own clarity and look more like a leader by eliminating these four influence killers in your own speech:

1. Saying "so" when you begin speaking.

It's a little word with a big impact. When you start with "so," you're tentatively asking for permission to be heard. It's the metaphorical equivalent of raising your hand.

Eliminate your "so" starters:

  • Say a person's name instead. When directly addressing one person, instead of saying "So here's an overview," say "Jamie, here's an overview."
  • Address the entire audience. When you're addressing a group, you might say something like, "Thank you all for your comments in preparation for this meeting."
  • Pause before speaking. Breathe, and then begin intentionally. You'll look thoughtful and grounded.
  • Prepare your first sentence ahead of time. For example, you could state the purpose of the meeting, "Our purpose today is to ensure the overview matches the goals we set out to achieve."

2. Using filler words.

Words such as "you know," "kind of," "um," "ah," and "er" are fillers because they don't convey meaning. Most people have embedded their favorite filler word or phrase so deeply into their speech that they don't notice it anymore.

While the occasional filler word is unavoidable (and may be a sign you're speaking conscientiously), an abundance of them give the impression you're uncertain.

Trash the fillers:

  • Analyze your speech. With permission from the other person, record a conversation. When you play back the recording, count how many fillers you used, noting each type. Do you use fillers throughout your speech or only in particular places? Knowing when you use them can help you understand why you use them.
  • Create an antidote. Depending on when you use fillers, you might have different antidotes. For instance, if you use "ums" instead of periods at the end of each sentence, visualize the period at the end of the sentence and consciously take a breath instead.
  • Eliminate one at a time. If you have a diverse vocabulary of fillers, trash one filler at a time. Paying attention to too many will distract and frustrate you.
  • Ask a friend for help. Ask a trusted colleague to cue you when they notice you using your favorite filler.
  • Play back your conversations. Keep recording your conversations and notice any progress. With regular listening, you'll be able to anticipate when you're about to filler-ize your sentence and stop yourself.

Gmail users can try the Just Not Sorry add-on to eliminate fillers in their emails.

3. Asking permission.

When you say "I want to" or "I'd like to," you may come across as diffident, and listeners may become impatient for what you actually want to say.

Don't say, "I want to show you a chart with our competitive analysis." You can simply say, "Here's a chart with our competitive analysis."

Be stingy with your wants:

  • Distinguish between a want and a statement. "I want to sleep now. Would you please turn down the TV?" is a want. "Here's our competitive analysis" is a statement.

4. Using "I think" as a qualifier.

When you frequently use "I think," you sound unsure--like you're trying to establish your competence.

Jackie (not her real name) is a general manager at an IT company and another one of my coaching clients. Two months ago, her manager told her she needed to be more assertive. She started using "I think" frequently because she believed this phrase asserted her point of view more forcefully. In fact, it made her appear less confident.

James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at UT Austin, who studies how we speak, shows in his research that frequent use of the word "I" lowers a person's perceived status.

Reduce your "I think" count:

  • State your opinion. Your audience will assume that what you're saying is based on what you think.
  • End with assurance. Qualifying your statement at the end will equally undermine its credibility.

In a fast-paced, limited-attention-span world, you won't get a large word budget. Crisper speech is interpreted as crisper thinking. You'll be more effective and get more done if people can understand and act on what you say.

Clean speech isn't window dressing; it's a powerful leadership tool for being heard, influencing others, and, ultimately, getting what you want.