Ditch your verbal crutch for clearer communication
Ditch Your Verbal Crutches for Clearer Communication
By Chelse Benham
“Jargon is a parasitic growth: It gathers on the limbs of thought like Spanish
moss on Charleston oaks; it does not altogether conceal, but it softens, disguises
and blurs.” – James J. Kilpatrick, syndicated columnist
Verbal crutches, fillers, hedges and qualifiers are used to hold a thought,
capriciously expressed and said without conveying any real meaning. They
clutter communication and may prevent the listener from focusing on the
message. When someone uses speech fillers repeatedly, it is noticed by others.
It often becomes the only thing that is noticed and ultimately, the only thing that is
According to Dr. George McLemore, associate professor in the Department of
Communication at The University of Texas-Pan American, there are “two
necessary conditions to clear speaking, both publicly and interpersonally.” He
advices the following principals:
1. Have something worthwhile to say; know the specifics of important
issues whether those issues are personal, local, national or international.
Dysfluency often results from simply "having nothing worthwhile to say."
And we, as speakers, on some level, know when we are speaking about
substantive issues, and that knowledge motivates us, enables us to speak
2. Know what it is you are trying to talk about. The dysfluencies very
often result from the simple (but important) fact of not knowing the subject
adequately. Names, dates, places, facts, historical anecdotes and stories,
when woven into conversations (or speeches), demonstrate that
knowledge and speaker knows it, feels it, and thereby is less likely to need
the crutch or filler.
Some people express themselves easily and succinctly allowing their words to
carry weight and purpose. Others become tongue-tied under pressure. Saying
“um” or “ah” can feel better, than saying nothing at all. However, a pause here
and there can be a welcomed relief; it gives the speaker a chance to gather his
or her thoughts, and the listener a chance to digest all that’s been said.
Jacqueline Farrington, professional voice specialist at Yale University,
categorizes three of the most affected areas of verbal communication into
hedges, qualifiers and fillers. These are found at www.transactionworld.com
Hedges appear at the beginning of statements. They avoid the risk of
commitment by leaving open a way of retreat for the speaker. They create doubt
in listeners and they unnecessarily prolong sentences. Some common hedges
• 'In my opinion, I think we should.....'
• 'I just think, feel, wonder, etc.'
The key to eliminating hedges is to ask yourself, 'Are these words essential? Do
they add useful information to what I am saying?' If in doubt, leave them out.
Remove any word that does not add useful information.
Qualifiers alter the strength or the meaning of what has been said by questioning
the validity of the statement. They appear as 'tags' after a sentence and will turn
clear statements of fact into feeble questions. Qualifiers take three forms: verbal,
vocal or physical. Common verbal qualifiers include:
• ‘This is the best product, isn't it?’
• ‘This is a great idea, don't you think?’
• ‘We had a wonderful time, right?’
• ‘I don't want to go there again for lunch, do y'know what I mean?’
Physical qualifiers - shrugging the shoulders, casting the eyes to the floor or
rolling them to the ceiling, flicking the hand away from the body - weaken our
statements by using apologetic or submissive gestures after a sentence.
Fillers are sounds, words, or phrases used to fill pauses when speaking. They
create an impression of a lack of confidence by making the speaker sound
hesitant, halting and uncertain of what to say next. They are usually spoken
when silence is felt and there is fear that interruption might take place. Silence,
when properly applied, communicates power and control. Dynamic speakers do
not need to apologize for taking the time to consider their words. They know the
importance of well-timed silences. Common fillers include:
In her article, “How to Cure the ‘Verbal Virus’ A Five-Step Treatment Plan,”
Susan Berkley, author of “Speak to Influence: How to Unlock the Hidden Power
of Your Voice” outlines a means for breaking poor speaking habits.
1. Diagnose the problem – Since verbal viruses are unconscious, the only way
you'll hear them is on tape. Record a few of your phone calls on a typical
business day to quickly determine if you are suffering from a verbal virus
2. Pause – Whenever you catch yourself saying a non-word, just stop talking.
Say nothing. This gap of silence will feel scary at first, but if the pause is no
longer than five seconds, the listener will scarcely notice. A pause will help you
gather your thoughts while giving the listener time to reflect on what you have
3. Record the voicemail messages you leave for others – Listen to them at
the end of the day and note whether or not unwanted fillers have crept into your
4. Enlist the help of a friend or spouse – Explain what you are trying to do and
invent a code word he or she can use every time you use a filler word. The
constant reminder will help you break the habit fast.
5. Take a breath – When you feel you are about to use a non-word, take a
breath, hold it for a moment and then begin to speak. The focus on your
breathing will occupy your mind, keep you calm and centered and make the
silence between the words seem much less scary.
According to Terrence Moore, author of “Today’s Youth Need Standards of
Study and of Speaking” at ashbrook.org “Young people today are particularly in
need of standards of speech. Their conversation ranges from the sloppy to the
vulgar. In today’s young person’s lexicon, everything is either ‘cool’ or ‘it sucks.’
This nation is faced with a growing inarticulateness.” Some other words and
phrases most commonly abused by young people are:
“Like” – For example: “I was, like, so impressed with your company’s Website.”
“You know” (or You know what I'm sayin') – For example: “Working while putting
myself through college was both challenging and, you know, rewarding.”
“Young people are often still developing their social and verbal skills so it is
common for them to use verbal crutches. They often use jargon in order to
identify with their peer group and set themselves apart from ‘adults,’” Dr. Dora
Saavedra, associate professor in the Department of Communication at UTPA
said. “In addition, a young person who speaks in a more adult fashion is
sometimes subjected to teasing and ridicule. It’s easier then for them to adapt to
the speaking norms of the peer group. I try to teach students about impression
management. I tell them that the way they speak to their friends is not
necessarily the way they should speak in public. Sometimes, young students do
not make that distinction whereas older students have learned that already.“
In her article, “Top 7 Tips For Developing The Voice That Wins” by Dr. June
Johnson, communication and speech specialist, Johnson gives a concrete
strategy to breaking any verbal crutch and poor speaking habit.
”The voice is your most powerful means of communication. How you hear
yourself is not necessarily how others hear you,” Johnson writes. “Successful
professionals have voices that command attention and move people to action.
The following tips will help you to develop the voice of authority.”
1. Breathe from the diaphragm – the foundation of effective speech. It is
the power behind the voice that gives it depth and authority and increases
your ability to project. It also helps control nerves and keeps the voice
from rising in pitch when under stress.
2. Articulate your consonants. A recent Gallup Poll listed mumbling as the
most annoying habit of speech. Consonants are what make speech
intelligible, the "bread and butter" of speech. If people have to work to
understand what you're saying, they'll stop listening.
3. Use inflection. The voice has a natural range of five to eight tones that
give the voice vitality, add color and interest to what you're saying.
4. Pronounce all syllables. You will sound more professional when you do.
Missing syllables make for sloppy, lazy speech. Avoid pronunciations such
as "innernet," "comtuble," "inneresing," "gummint," "reglar," "secetary,"
etc.. Avoid dropping the “ing” off of words.
5. Keep the vocal energy flowing. Energy is the key word to speaking
effectively. Fading away or dropping ends of sentences will leave the
listener in the dark. If the point is important enough to be made, it's
important enough to be heard.
6. Tape yourself. Learn to know your voice. Once you've identified the
habits you want to eliminate you'll be on the road to developing habits that
will make you an effective speaker. As with anything else, it is possible to
improve how you speak.
7. Talk to or with people, not at them. No one likes to be assaulted by a
voice that's loud or abrasive. The pleasant, well-modulated voice will
accomplish far more than the voice that overwhelms.
Authors, Dorothy U. Seyler and Carol J. Boltz, write in their book, “Language
Power,” about the power of articulation and well constructed speech:
“We do not know our purposes until we endow them with words; do not, indeed,
know ourselves. The pleasure you will feel as you develop your vocabulary is not
solely the pleasure that comes with increased power; it is also the greater
pleasure that comes with increased knowledge, especially of yourself.”
Be master over your speech. Expand your vernacular to include colorful
adjectives and action verbs that express how you truly think and feel. Don’t
clutter your message with petty words generically and generously used in every
sentence or stutter noises to hold your train of thought. While you are actively
listening to others choose to do the same for yourself. Listen to how you speak
and refrain from leaning on verbal crutches that weaken your communication.
Remember the wise adage, “Less is more.” Throw away the verbal riffraff and get
straight to the meaning of things.
“The more words one has at his command, the greater the possibility that he
may be his own master.” – Seyler and Boltz, “Language Power”