Tips to Avoid Fillers When You are Speaking

By George Merlis Friday, March 12, 2010

If you’ve been following the public pronouncements of Akio Toyoda, the CEO of Toyota Motor, you’ve probably heard him speaking Japanese before the English translation takes over. And you’ve doubtless heard him utter the word ano. A lot. In fact, Mr. Toyoda, says ano so much you might think it’s Japanese for a really common word like “the” or “it.”

In fact, ano means “there” -- as in “that Prius over there.” But like many Japanese speakers, Mr. Toyoda uses ano not as a word, but as a filler, a meaningless sound meant to buy time in a sentence. You can tell ano is being used as a filler without knowing another word of Japanese; when the meaning is “there,” as in “that one over there,”  ano is short and choppy. When it’s buying time in a sentence, it’s pronounced anoooo. The longer the o sound, the more time the speaker is buying.

The American equivalents of anooooo are ummm and y’know. We hear them in interviews all the time. The other day on the NPR program “Marketplace,” I heard a business economist use "y’know" a distressing number of times. To me, "y’know" is a particularly offensive filler word. Generally, when people throw in a "y’know," I DO know, so they are inadvertently insulting me by asking me if I can follow their line of reasoning.  You know (sorry, couldn’t resist) that y’know is just a nervous time-buying expression when someone deploys it two and three times in a single answer.

Businessmen who are perfectly adept at delivering a report from just a handful of notes on index cards sometimes fall back on repeated y’knows when answering questions.  And y’know is contagious.  If an interviewer peppers his questions with y’knows, then an interview subject is far more likely to use the expressions -- and, unhappily, visa versa.

Y’know is an awkward crutch that can undermine a business spokesperson’s authority, so the question for those of us who do presentations and answer media and public questions is how to we banish that particularly annoying English version of anooooo?

First, we have to realize we have the bad habit. During media training sessions, clients often learn they have developed the habit only when I play back a practice interview to critique their performance. The expression has become a reflex; almost like breathing, and speakers are unaware they're saying y’know.

If you’re not in a media training session, how can you learn if you’re using y’know? The best way to find out is to record a conversation with another person, play it back and see if you have the habit.

If you do find yourself afflicted, I have found that preempting the filler often helps. For example, you can start a response with “You know, the most important thing to realize is....” By using the fully spelled out “you know,” you put yourself on mental notice not to use the filler conjunction y’know.  Using “you know,” that way also sets you up to incorporate the sense of the question in your answer -- and repeating the sense of the question is a great time-buying device that often gives you that nanosecond you need to decide what your answer really is.   One you’re on course, you’re less likely to fall back on time-buying gimmicks like y’know.

Incorporating the sense of a question in an answer also makes your answer self-contained -- which is especially valuable in media interviews. But the most important piece of advice I can give is to have an agenda ready to deploy in any sort of Q&A session -- whether it’s with colleagues, the media or the public.  If you have an agenda, incorporate the sense of the question into your answer and from time to time begin a response with “You know,” you’re unlikely to find yourself resorting to y’know.  Or hmmmmm.  Or, if you happen to be doing an interview in Japanese, anoooooo.

Finally, before any interview, do a practice Q&A with a colleague, family member or friend.  You can even interview yourself in a pinch -- although that’s a last resort because you know what questions you’re going to pose to yourself.  Record that session, play it back and critique yourself. If you practice, you’re unlikely to resort to fillers.  "If you, y’know, don’t practice, you’re, y'know, setting yourself up for......” You get the idea.

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