As a presenter, avoiding filler words can help you appear more credible and more persuasive. Below are strategies on how to avoid filler words in your own communication.
They work for me in the classroom, and they will work for you too ...
I have taught listening skills to my students more times than I can count, and to be honest, I have never liked teaching the subject. Not because listening skills aren’t important. Good listeners are engaging and make us feel important.
But every book or chapter that I have read on listening skills has been filled with generic advice like “be attentive,” or “paraphrase what the speaker says in your own words.” These tips are helpful, to a point, but they are also so vague that I don’t feel like I’m actually giving my students useful information. My students can likely sense that I don’t have faith in what I’m saying, and the credibility of my lesson is gone as soon as the words leave my mouth.
So you can imagine my relief and excitement when, this week, I finally found a book with listening tips that are concrete, teachable, and actually helpful.
I am teaching John Gottman and Joan DeClaire’s book The Relationship Cure to my Interpersonal Communication class. Combining tips from other great relationship writers, such as Dale Carnegie, and Gottman’s own original research, the authors develop a list of listening advice that is both actionable and effective.
Here are my favorites from the list of skills that they provide:
- Focus on being interested, not interesting: People have a basic human need to feel important. Help people fulfill that need by hearing out what they have to say and showing genuine interested. Focus more on the other person in the conversation and less on presenting yourself as successful or fascinating.
- Start by asking questions: Ask questions that allow people to elaborate. Ask open-ended questions, i.e., not questions that can be answered with a “yes,” or a “no.” For example, “How is your latest work project going?” Also, I personally find that many people will ask one question, get their answer, and then wait for their conversation partner to ask them a question in return. The conversation does not need to flow back-and-forth in this way. To get a good rapport going, ask a few questions in a row until your conversation partner is talking about something that interests them. Work to find that topic that excites them.
- Look for commonalities: We are drawn to people who remind us of ourselves. It’s why alumni networks help people find jobs. If you grew up in the same city as a person you have just met, mention it. Sharing points that you have in common will help others open up to sharing more. Be mindful of sharing too much with someone you have just met though. We tend to like to hear details about biographical background, hobbies, and other general interests from new acquaintances—nothing more intense or personal.
- Respond with an occasional brief sound or nod: When we are listening, we find ways to let the speaker know we are listening to them, even though we don’t want to interrupt to say, “Yes. I hear what you are saying, and I am listening to you.” We use what are called backchannel cues. As the speaker talks, we’ll simply nod our head or murmur “mmm hmmm,” “ok,” “yes.” These small utterances are important to let the speaker know that we are still with them, still paying attention.
- Let go of your own agenda: Don’t try to control how the speaker is reacting to what they tell you. Don’t try to fix their problem or emotional state. This advice can be especially hard to follow if someone is upset. But in true listening, your job is to be open and let the speaker unburden themselves to you. At least at this point, it’s not your job to help them fix the situation.
- Turn off the television and phone: Gottman and DeClaire write to turn off the television in order to be a good listener … but their book was published in 2001. A bigger issue in 2016 is cellphones. When someone needs to be heard, put your phone away. Do not be distracted by a shiny screen of any kind.
Listening is crucially important to good communication, and it is deceptively difficult. Maybe that is why I have found it so frustrating that it has taken me more than 8 years of teaching to find a good resource on the subject. But also, it makes sense that, as a deceptively difficult subject, it would be hard to find a resource that understands the nuances of the process and explains it well to others.
If you are an introvert, like me, you may want to prepare for your presentation differently than an extrovert would ... but there's no reason that you cannot be an excellent public speaker!
The best nonverbal technique for communicating that you are open to communication is something called "immediacy." Immediacy is how we indicate that we are physically or psychologically interested in connecting with other people. There are verbal and nonverbal ways to show immediacy, but in the below video, I share some of the best nonverbal ways to communicate immediacy.
Visualization can be a great technique to help prepare for a presentation. It is one of my favorite ways to alleviate anxiety and feel ready for an important talk. Extra steps like these are especially important for introverts, who sometimes need a little extra practice before their presentation in order to feel comfortable with their delivery.
The below video offers tips on how to use visualization to your advantage. One important detail: as you visualize, be sure to see yourself succeeding!
This great article from The Washington Post addresses something I see on college campuses all the time. Many students, especially freshmen, feel lonely, homesick, isolated, but also think there is something wrong with them for having these feelings.
Most college students have moved out on their own for the first time in their lives. Many are far away from their families and all of their close friends. There is a natural, initial rush of excitement when the school year starts. Classes are new. Orientation activities keep everyone engaged and busy. But a few weeks into the first semester, homesickness and isolation can set in. Students can become so preoccupied with putting forward a brave face, that they struggle to admit their loneliness to others, or even themselves.
It takes time to build strong friendships. And it takes time to feel truly comfortable in a new environment. College freshmen are not necessarily going to immediately adapt to their new campus life. Admitting a sense of isolation is not a sign of weakness; it is the first step toward finding strategies to connect with others. Most universities offer counseling services for students who need them. And all schools have social outlets that can help students reach out to their peers.
This piece has some great tips for both students and parents on how to address this struggle. I hope people continue to talk and write about this issue to further combat the stigma associated with it.
Proofreading tips from a professional proofreader
Whether you’re a professional, or just someone who likes to have your work look polished, we all have to proofread our work. Below are some best practices that I learned in the field.
Edit and proofread separately
If your job requires massaging of text, do not expect yourself to be accurate in your ability to correct grammar and punctuation while you are rewriting the copy. You will need to read through a separate time for your official proofreading marks.
Read line-by-line with a ruler or other straight-edged object
When there is an error in the text—for example, a missing word, or two letters are transposed—our brains will many times automatically fill in the correct information. When you proofread, you have to fight this tendency and consciously work to find the errors. Isolating one line at a time increases the chances that you will find those mistakes in the copy.
Use technology to search for common errors
Use the “find” feature of whatever program you are in to search for common errors. This idea applies to common grammatical and style problems but also terms that are important to your client. Search for the company president’s name to make sure that it is spelled correctly. Search for key terms in your industry to ensure correct punctuation and capitalization. As long as you have the technology, use it to your benefit.
Consistency matters most
This trait is largely what separates professional proofreaders from non-professionals who are good with grammar. Your style should be consistent throughout your document. Make sure that you use the same rules for capitalization, bolding of headlines, and grammar throughout the piece. Do you apply the same style for periods in bullet points? Are you using em and en dashes correctly? Have you made a decision about whether to use the Oxford comma and applied it consistently throughout the document? You should do one read of the document just for consistency … maybe more, depending on how complicated the document is and how many consistency decisions are required.
Tips for professional proofreaders ...
Limit your hours
If you are proofreading, you have to be careful about mental fatigue. At a certain point, you will become your own worst enemy. A proofreader is their own best resource. You may find yourself in a job in which supervisors or freelance clients encourage you to work more than eight or nine hours a day, but longer hours can be dangerous for a proofreader. Working longer hours may only hurt your accuracy, but client/employer expectations will not decrease.
Add fact checking
Clients will not expect you to fact check, but anytime you can correct a fact or notice a misspelled term or name, you are adding value to your service. There will not always be time for this service, but as your budget allows, simply use the internet to verify facts that do not meet your common-sense test. If the client does not have a style guide, create one as you work. Any additional service you can offer adds value to your role.
Since Hillary Clinton’s voice has received so much media attention lately—whether it’s annoying, and whether it’s sexist to find her voice annoying—I wanted to add some insights on what makes a for a good speaking voice.
To some extent, this is all subjective. For example, one person might think the character Janice on Friends has the most annoying voice in the world, and another might not mind her voice much at all. But in general terms, research has identified trends.
We do find some voices more attractive than others … just like we find some people more attractive than others. Fair or not, it’s a fact of life.
People tend to like voices that convey authority, competence, industriousness, sensitivity, and warmth (Zuckerman & Driver, 1989). Conveying all of these traits at once can become complicated. Although many people, women included, manage to successfully convey these traits concurrently.
To convey authority and competence, speak at an appropriate volume—loud enough to be heard, but not so loud that you shout at you audience. Avoid filler words—pauses in which you fill the space with vocal utterances like “um,” “uh,” “like,” etc. Also, make sure that you are breathing from your diaphragm. (Here is a great exercise for developing your diaphragm.)
To sound industrious, you should speak at a reasonably fast rate. Do not speak so slow that the audience is bored trying to listen to you. Also, make sure that your vocal tone varies. If you sound monotone, the audience will find you low energy and be bored listening to you.
Sensitivity and warmth can be more nuanced and difficult to convey. They come from vocal variety, but also a hint of breathiness at the right moment, a slight uptick in energy that indicates true emotion. Try focusing on the emotion behind your message as you deliver your presentation. Also, make sure that you are developing a presentation style that is authentic to who you are as a person. You can borrow techniques from Oprah or Ivanka Trump, but if you steal one person’s entire style, you will seem inauthentic, and the audience will feel that inauthenticity.
Zuckerman, M., & Driver, R.E. (1989). What sounds beautiful is good: The vocal attractiveness stereotype. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior., 13, 67-82.
A little smile can go a long way.
Smiling is an almost universally positive communication behavior. People who smile are viewed as more persuasive, more likable, and more credible. They have better affinity with their audiences as presenters. And almost all of us could stand to smile more than we do.
Genuine smiles are called Duchenne smiles, named for the researcher who first identified the difference between real and fake smiles. When real, happy emotions are behind our smiles, we crinkle the muscles at the sides of our eyes. Sometimes we call these muscles the "crow's feet." (See the video below for more details.)
1. Gestures can make you look more natural as a speaker. In everyday conversation, most people talk with their hands to some extent. Using gestures in a presentation helps your audience see you as someone who is simply having a conversation with them.
2. Research shows that adding gestures helps your audience understand the information you are sharing—even if you are using general, non-specific hand movements. This connection becomes especially important if the information that you are presentation is complicated.
3. To optimize the efficacy of your gestures, adjust their size to the size of your audience (see video for details). For example, if you are talking to a few people, move your hands/arms from your wrists. If your audience is a few dozen people, move your arms from your elbows. If your audience is a hundred people or larger, move your arms from your shoulders. This ensures that your gestures feel appropriate to the people watching your presentation.
4. One of the primary concerns I hear from students and clients who are anxious about presenting is what to do with their hands when they are presenting. If you become comfortable using gestures as you present, you have alleviated any concern over what to do with your hands. You do not need to count off points with your fingers or anything nearly that complicated. Simply moving your hands in a general manner is enough to help engage your audience and make you appear more comfortable and confident as a presenter. I bet it will make you feel more confident, too!
Are you hurting your business by letting calls go to voicemail?
If you’re someone who depends on new clients reaching you via the phone, the answer is probably yes.
Researchers Yuri Miyamoto and Norbert Schwarz studied human behavior when confronted with voicemail. When nothing but a recording answers their call, at least half of people will hang up and leave no message.
For those of us who depend on clients calling on the phone, that's a lot of missed connections from potential business.
Miyamoto and Schwarz also examined the difference in behavior between American people and Japanese people. America is generally considered an individualistic culture—people are motivated by doing what is best for them personally. Japan is considered to be more of a collectivistic culture—people are motivated by doing what is best for the group. When looking at these two cultures separately, Miyamoto and Schwarz found that Americans would avoid leaving a voicemail about half of the time, but Japanese people would avoid leaving a voicemail a staggering 85% of the time.
The researchers theorized that people with individualistic tendencies are more goal-oriented when they call. They are more comfortable leaving a voicemail because their focus is conveying particular information that helps them accomplish that goal. People from collectivistic cultures may have a mix of goal-focus and relationship-focus. Leaving a voicemail may help them accomplish a goal, but it would not go very far in creating a better relationship with whomever they are calling.
To give some very general examples, America, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand would be considered individualistic. Japan and other Asian countries, most Hispanic countries, certainly Mexico, Middle Eastern nations, and India are considered collectivistic.
If you have a tendency to let calls go to voicemail, which, let’s face it, most of us do, how do you improve your call-to-voicemail-ratio?
1. Answer the dang phone: Make a concerted effort to answer the phone. Stop telling yourself that they’ll leave a message if it’s important or you can call them back. Just pick up the phone. Yes your uninterrupted thoughts are important ... but so is your client!
2. Turn your “annoying callers” into contacts: Am I the only one whose dentist reminds me of my upcoming appointments about a half dozen times? If calls like these are part of what keeps you from answering your phone, program your “annoying callers” as contacts so you can safely send them to voicemail without missing potential new business.
3. Consider not giving out your number: If you’re self-employed, don’t give your number to clients. Rely on other technology. Your business may require speaking over the phone, and then, this technique is not an option, but many people middle-aged and younger prefer using email to communicate, especially when making an initial contact. If you know that you’re not good at answering your phone, don’t give it out as number at which people can reach you. The phone is no longer de rigueur.
4. Keep voicemail space available: Please, please, please. Don’t let your voicemail get full! I can’t count how many people I have tried to call at official work numbers in recent years whose voicemails were completely full and seemed to permanently stay that way. If it’s a required part of your job to have a voicemail, you need to maintain it.
What’s the takeaway? We all need to avoid using voicemail as a crutch, but those of us who do business with people from collectivistic cultures need to be especially vigilant about actually answering the phone when it rings.
Last night, Ryan Lochte had a disastrous debut on Dancing with the Stars.
His dancing wasn’t great, but what really hurt him is his complete failure to understand what the American public needs from him in an apology.
According to Aaron Lazare, author of On Apology, people want one or more of 7 issues to be addressed when they receive an apology.
1. Restoration of respect and dignity
2. Assurances that they and the offender have shared values
3. Assurances that they are not at risk of further harm by the offender
4. Knowledge that the offender has suffered as a result of the offense
5. An opportunity to communicate their feelings about their suffering
6. A promise of adequate reparations
7. Assurances that they were not at fault
The first 5 factors are most applicable to Ryan Lochte’s situation. Ryan Lochte offended the dignity of the United States by embarrassing us on an international stage. I think that might be what stings most about his lies to the world. By delaying his apology and attempting to deny his lies at first, we have to question whether he shares our values—values like honesty, respecting public property, friendship, teamwork, maturity, and representing your country well when you are overseas, especially when you have major media attention on you.
Lochte is using Dancing with the Stars as an attempt to apologize. His logic seems to be that the show will give him a chance to apologize further, let people see his side of the story, let people see that he is a good guy. But he has now made the US anxious that he could create a further incident. Seeing Lochte again on a national stage hardly instills confidence.
He has indeed suffered as a result of his behavior. Lochte lost many lucrative endorsements and has been banned from competitive swimming for 10 months, a period of time that includes a world championship competition … but immediately appearing on a popular TV show minimizes the impression of suffering in the minds of the US public. It would have been wiser for Lochte to keep a low profile for a while.
And we saw last night what happens when people don’t have an opportunity to communicate their feelings about the attempts at apology—they find a way. In personal relationships, built up resentment can boil over into an unexpected fight. In Lochte’s case, protesters interrupted a live TV show.
Lochte is hardly alone in mishandling his apology. Few people—public figures or otherwise—apologize well. It is an intricate dance that we often oversimplify. I suspected this was not going to be a good move for him, but after last night, it seems pretty clear that there is not anything Ryan Lochte will be able to do during his time on Dancing with the Stars to endear him to the nation.
Earlier this week, one of my clients asked me for tips on writing networking emails after meeting contacts face-to-face. I wrote this template email to help guide my client in writing their own emails. I thought the template might be useful to others, so I wanted to post it here. I have posted notes behind brackets, in bold text, explaining the reasoning behind my writing.
Hello Ms. Smith.
How are you? It was a pleasure to meet you at the Great Business Leaders Conference last week. [Remind recipient how you know them.] I have always admired your work with new technologies in business analytics, and it was great to talk to you in person. [Give a specific and genuine compliment.] As I mentioned when we spoke, I work in strategy at company ABC and am interested in transitioning into analytics. [Who are you? Why are you writing?] I would love to buy you coffee and chat some more if you have the time. Perhaps later this month? [What do you want, specifically? Internship ... job shadow ... coffee?] Again, it was great to finally put a face to the name I have heard so much about. [Do not make the email long. People have short attention spans and business leaders receive lots of email.] Thank you for your time, and have a great week. [Thank recipient and end with no pressure.]
[If this is an important contact, follow up at least twice a year to maintain the contact.]
When you follow up, it is great to include a personal detail about your contact. Try to remember something about their hobbies, interests, family, or where they grew up. One of the great things about having an email trail of your conversation is that you can search your conversation history to remind yourself of what you and a contact previously discussed. Keep future contacts light and low pressure. Simply write every six months or so to stay on their radar.
One of the biggest fears in the U.S. is the fear of public speaking. Below are some proven strategies that can help you relax before your next presentation. Even the most skilled presenter deals with nerves, and no one is born being a great presenter. We all have to develop our skills. Techniques like these will both help you feel less nervous and appear less nervous to your audience.
1. Stand in a confident posture
Researcher Amy Cuddy has published research that indicates standing in a confident body posture for just two minutes before your presentation lessens stress hormones produced by the body. By standing in a “power pose,” you can decrease cortisol levels in your body and increase testosterone, and therefore, feel more confident when you do speak. To create a “power pose,” think of standing like a super hero—legs spread slightly wider than hip-width, arms on hips, straight back, chin up. (Do your most presentation-friendly venue version of this posture. Obviously, don’t mimic Superman in front of your audience right before you speak.)
2. Prepare and practice
There is no secret lesson in this strategy. People who have rehearsed their presentation feel more confident. Know your message the best that you can. Rehearse your material. Practice with your technology. Understand your audience—who are they, what is their motivation for attending your presentation? The more prepared you are in all of these areas, the more at-ease you will feel on the day of your presentation.
3. Visualize your speech
Athletes use this technique before games. Imagine yourself giving your presentation and succeeding. Put as much detail into the visualization as possible. Think about the room and what it will look like. Picture yourself in front of your audience and include specific faces in your visualization. What does the room smell like? How crowded is it? Watch yourself progressing through your talk. Most importantly, at each stage of this visualization, imagine yourself delivering a great presentation!
4. Relax your muscles
When we are anxious, we tend to tense muscles in part of our body. Anxious speakers will generally tense their shoulders, neck, upper arms, or behind their knees. Try to notice what part of your body gets tense before you speak and while you speak. Make a concerted effort to relax these muscles. Letting go of the physical tension can help you feel better mentally, too.
5. Positive self-talk
I know from experience, this one is easier said than done … but be nice to yourself. You are likely your own worst critic and are judging yourself more harshly than anyone member of your audience. As you prepare, focus on what you are doing well and where you see improvement. When you catch yourself critiquing your own performance, try to let those thoughts go. Audiences are more positive than you imagine. They will be rooting for you. You need to root for yourself too!