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Apparently, they really ARE just like us.
Anderson Cooper makes 12 MILLION dollars a year from CNN alone. Toss in what CBS pays him for his work on Sixty Minutes, royalties from his books, and speaking fees. The guy is a celebrity and a mega-millionaire.
And yet, he told a New York Times interviewer he’s long since stopped paying attention to the business side of news. It just doesn’t interest him. “For me,” Cooper said, “the solution was to focus on what I had control over: getting better at interviews, improve my writing, stop saying ‘um.’”
Just like every speaker I’ve ever coached, platform professionals as well as those who need to be more effective with an audience for the sake of their business or career. The goal is to get better at the craft. And stop saying “um.”
Maybe you’ve tried to stop saying “um”?
It can be challenging to eliminate our favorite filler language, whether it’s “um,” “soooooo,” or “like.” And I part company with some speaking coaches when I suggest we don’t need to get rid of every single non-word we utter. That can sound almost robotic, and the truth is that the occasional, judicious “um” can convey information. We’re listening, it says, or pondering.
It is best to keep those vocalized pauses to a minimum though. The fillers are distracting, and they can make us sound as if we’re not really sure what we’re talking about.
Easier said than done though, isn’t it?
Here are some tips for eliminating that verbal clutter.
Awareness is the first step. Do you know what filler words you use and how frequently they crop up? If not, listen to a recording of yourself or enlist the help of a friend who hears you talk often and is willing to give you candid feedback. Sometimes other people hear us more clearly than we hear ourselves.
Focus on the people you’re talking to. When I’m lost in my own head, I’m more likely to ramble than when I’m zeroing in on my audience, and speaking in a way that connects with them.
Eye contact is one way to make sure our attention is where it belongs—on the people we want to influence, entertain, or inspire.
If you’re with them in person, you’re looking right at the audience, one person at a time. If you’re speaking on Zoom or Teams, or like Anderson Cooper, in a TV studio, you make eye contact with your audience by looking through the camera, as if you’re seeing the individual right on the other side.
You might slow down a bit. It can be easier to keep that comfortable connection with the listeners when we’re not racing to get through what we’re saying. The best speakers vary their pace, speeding up and slowing down in a natural rhythm that keeps an audience engaged.
Get comfortable with pausing between phrases and sentences. That little break is welcome on both sides. It gives your listeners a chance to absorb and process what you’re saying. And it gives you a chance to breathe! Take it.
Often, speakers are so uneasy with those moments of silence, they race to the finish or fill the gaps with verbal clutter like “um.” It’s worth practicing, maybe with a friend, when nothing is riding on the conversation, intentionally allowing yourself to fall silent for a second or two.
Notice whether that moment makes you uneasy. And whether you chase it away with “like” or “y’know” or “soooo.”
Play with this exercise. Not in front of an important audience, but in casual conversation with a friend, practice finishing a sentence, putting your lips together, and leaving them like that until you start the next sentence–with something other than “So.” Really sense your lips touching each other; be aware of that physical contact.
It’s an intentional pause, and because you’re doing it consciously, it’s possible to override the non-conscious fill-that-silence impulse. We practice this sort of thing in ordinary conversations, so it can become a new habit that doesn’t require attention when we’re speaking in front of a group.
As you practice the Pause, you’ll notice other changes too.
Speaking skills work together, in my experience. So, as you eliminate some of the verbal fluff, you may notice a certain settling in other aspects of your presentation. You might find yourself more grounded, using a firmer tone of voice, or gesturing more deliberately. It can all turbocharge your speaking and increase the impact you have on your audience.