Reduce, Reuse and Recycle

The Litter of our Language

Soooo, um, like I’m thinking about, you know, going to see a show tonight.

The above statement was OH on my subway commute this morning — and even though I’ve been fairly good about shutting off my career in my ‘real life,’ I’ve spent the last few days openly discussing public speaking tips with my friends. One friend just had a big presentation, my guy just recorded a podcast — and while I try not to give unsolicited advice to my loved ones, I’ve has less of a filter than usual. Because winter.

Now for those of you that are blessed with not knowing me IRL, aside from teaching improv as a professional development tool to everyone except actors, I teach public speaking and presentation skills. I’ve never been that coach that gives blanket advice to everyone. I feel speaking is an incredibly personal thing, and everyone has their own original style that can be polished to be the very best ‘you’. The ‘how’ you say things is just as important as the ‘what’ you say — but individual styles are so important to dynamic public speaking.


The past few years I’ve noticed a lot of people struggle with litter in language. Technically in the speech-world, this falls under the category of speech disfluencies — essentially a break in the flow of speech. Language litter for our intents and purposes, can be defined simply as anything that doesn’t add to what you are saying — those ums, ahs, likes? Language litter.

It doesn’t matter what your career is — it’s a problem. If you are speaking to a group of people and they are focused more on your hesitations than your message, you have a problem. It’s one of the fastest ways to ruin your credibility as a speaker.

Unlike our world litter problem, your word litter can be fixed if you are focused on it. But like many self-improvements, awareness is the first step.

Beyond the um
You might be thinking, ‘I don’t say um. I have clean language!’ If that’s true, congrats. I’ve been a coach for over 10 years and I still have language litter. It doesn’t just stop at the ums, ahs and likes. Those are the biggest offenders we tend to hear, the ‘mainstream’ litter.

Any time we use words as fillers, we are littering. I’ve heard ‘and, so’ A LOT. Extension of words — ‘annnnnd, so,’ ‘welllllllll,’ ‘thhhheeeeennnn’ — essentially take any word and draw it out, and you’ve got yourself litter.

Other offenders? ‘You know’ and ‘like.’ I was teaching a public speaking class last week and I had four students out of ten — 40% of the class — struggling with ‘you know’ and ‘like’. They didn’t um a single time, but those two phrases were consistently present.

These are clearly not the only ones. Anything that is repetitively used in your speech as a filler is litter. I say ‘that being said’ as a transition when I’m excessively nervous — incredibly aware of it, and work to get rid of it.

Just WHY?!
Silence. Is. Scary. I’m aware of it — and a large amount of the time, this is why we litter. We’re gathering our next word, thought, response — and we are afraid to have a moment of silence. But why? Well, a lot of people associate silence with the unknown. And it’s true. We are quiet because we don’t know what to say next.

And that’s ok.

Think about it — what’s better, a moment of silence or an um? A few seconds of quiet to get your audience to reflect and think, or repetitive extension of words? That silence is never as long as we think it is.

Another reason for the litter? Habit — if you’ve always done it, you’ll keep doing it until you consciously stop.

How can we save our speech world?
I mentioned earlier, awareness is key. If you haven’t either had someone listen to you speak or listened to youself, do that. Record your voice on your smartphone, an app on your computer — and really listen to it. Mark down things you hear consistently, pay attention to the fillers previously mentioned. In order to fix something, you have to know what you are fixing.

If you are mortified at this suggestion, have someone listen to you and be honest. ‘That was great!’ should never be the initial response — everyone has things to work on. If you don’t have access to affordable public speaking classes, a super honest friend will do.

Once you are aware of your litter, it’s time to get rid of it. Know it won’t be fixed in a day. This is something you’ll have to work on, much like training at the gym. Take a breath before you speak, slow down and start to be comfortable and aware of silences. A lot of time, we speak very quickly and that allows for fillers to come in — use the silence to your advantage. Take it as a moment for a breath for yourself, but also time for a question or a reflection for your audience.

Take control.

Again, this won’t be fixed in a day. But if you are reading this still, and thinking about your speech — you are already ahead of the curve.

So, um, good luck.