Final Argument: Verbal Tics

September 24, 2013 Final Arguments

I watch Sports Center almost every morning while getting dressed. Boston Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino, in an interview, said “y’know” – 72 times in three minutes. Yes I counted them. Sounded like he was afflicted with Tourette’s. It was grating – fingernails on a blackboard. Imagine a jury suffering through an hour of intensely annoying verbal tics.

“You know” is just one in a long line of vocal diarrhea that litters our speech. Verbal garbage litters our sentences such as: Um… like… you know… um… uh… you know.

Many of the fillers we use are:

Sounds — um, uh, ah, mm
Words – basically, actually, literally
Phrases – “I think that,” “you know,” “what I’m trying to say is”

Why do we stutter-out these horrors? We need them to fill up dead air. Just listen to people talk. In conversation, a filler word sends a signal to the other person saying: “I’m still thinking, and I’m not ready to pass the conversation back to you.” So you hear the long drawn out “uuuuuummmmmm.”

But in a jury argument or in public speaking this is a completely useless and counterproductive signal. No one is going to jump up and start speaking if you are quiet for a few moments. You don’t need to fill that space with noise to say that you’re still thinking.

Another downside: repeated and excessive use of filler words weakens your credibility. When we hear them too often we think, “This guy’s an idiot.” Just like an outfielder. Be honest and ask yourself: How often do I insert filler words? Do they distract my audience? Do they undermine my credibility?

What to do?

1. Recruit an understanding friend to listen and to count and give feedback on the impact.
2. Record your voice, and do your own analysis.
3. Record yourself on video. You also get to see the expressions on your face and what happens to your eyes when you are… uh… filling in words.

How do you solve the problem:

1. Better preparation.
My filler word usage is highest when my preparation is lowest. Your brain needs to “create” words on the fly, as opposed to pulling them from memory.
2. Learn how to pause. This is the best answer.
Instead of uttering the ums and ahs, just pause. Replace them with silence. It works.

Here is some expert advice on pausing:

From the James C. Humes book, Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln, the “Power Pause”:
“Before you speak, try to lock your eyes on each of your soon-to-be listeners. Force yourself before you begin your presentation to say in your own mind each word of your opening sentence. Every second you wait will strengthen the impact of your opening words. Make your Power Pause your silent preparation before any presentation you make. Stand, stare and command your audience, and they will bend to your will.”

In Lessons from the Podium, Steven D. Cohen advocates a similar approach:

“You should not utter a single word until after you have approached, acknowledged and accepted your audience members. Don’t make the mistake of starting your speech while you are walking to the center of the speaking area. Make your audience members wait until you are ready.”

The benefits of pausing:

1. Pauses help your audience understand you. It gives them time to think about what you just said.
2. Pauses give emphasis, drama and emotion. When you say something that you want them to feel, just stop talking. They will get the importance.
3. Pauses are critical to rhetorical questions. If you ask the jury a rhetorical question, pause to allow the jury to think about their answer.

So the remedy for filler words is to say – nothing. It works.