Uh ... Um ... so as I was saying ...
Well, basically ...
At first glance, you might think I'm just a writer suffering from a nervous breakdown after one too many blog posts. But, really, these are called crutch words -- a collection of words we fall back on when we've lost our footing while speaking.
We all use crutch words. They help us fill the gap in a conversation or speech when we're unsure of how to proceed, or haven't quite thought out the best way to position something.
Crutch words weaken the point you're trying to make. When you pepper your argument with unnecessary words, it distracts from the purpose of the message and dilutes its strength.
Even something as simple as "It's nice out" sounds much more confident and appealing than "So, um, it's nice out." Whether you're making a presentation to prospects, pitching a new project to your boss, or speaking on a call, the last thing you want to do is come off as nervous, unsure, or confusing.
Each person has their own set of crutch words, but there are quite a few that are very common. To help you rock your next conversation or speech, I've put together a list of common crutch words to watch out for and suggestions for how to cut them out of your speech so you aren't relying on them as heavily.
Note: Remember, aside from the non-words, crutch words are still words. This means that there is a right way to use them. But more often than not, they're used incorrectly or unnecessarily, which is why they made this list.
The Extraneous Exclamation
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An exclamation is a sudden interjection, often expressing surprise, anger, or hesitation. Those first two are alright, but when you're speaking, you're most often inserting exclamations in that last category -- hesitation. This can make you come off as unsure, unprepared, or nervous.
But good news! This is an easy crutch to catch, as it isn't a part of your sentence and sticks out like a sore thumb (you didn't plan on using "um" when explaining something).
Um: In the middle of my speech, I, um, lost my train of thought.
Uh: Uh, this speech is about, uh, not using crutch words.
Ah: Ah, you know it's funny, I use crutch words all the time.
Er: Er, I think there's never a good time to use these exclamations during a presentation.
The False Start
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Sometimes, you might start a sentence without fully thinking it through. Often, this results in starting with unnecessary words such as "and," "so," and starting, pausing, and re-starting sentences. Unless you mean to occasionally start with one of these words as a stylistic choice (maybe you're trying to be ultra-colloquial), you need to find the balance between using a word, and making it your crutch.
Here are some words to look out for:
And: Working in sales is fun. And ... did you know I'm working on a new presentation?
So: So, raise your hands if you've given a presentation lately.
Anyway: Anyway, it can be nervewracking.
And so: And so I usually take the afternoon to rehearse.
Okay: Okay I think I can handle speaking in front of 200 people.
Well: Well let's get right to the point.
Like I was saying: Like I was saying, though, trying to watch out for crutch words will help make the presentation more coherent.
If you notice these words creeping into your speech when you aren't sure what to say next, just pause for a moment to gather your bearings before continuing. Your audience won't even notice the little stop in the presentation.
The Awkward Ending
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Have you ever started a sentence, forgotten exactly what you were trying to say, and just ... ended it very awkwardly?
The awkward ending can be an interrogative tacked to the end of a statement that turns it into a question that the audience doesn't actually need/want to answer. Another common awkward ending is when you don't end the sentence right away, and when you finally do, there's one heck of an awkward pause at the end.
Right?: You get that feeling, right?
You know?: It's that nervousness you feel when you're standing in at the front of the room, you know?
Okay: So you've practiced what you're going to say, okay. But what's next?
Know what I mean?: It's actually time to present, now, and it's different, know what I mean?
You get the idea: Sweaty palms, higher heart rate, you get the idea.
And so on and so forth: This is when it's important to take a moment to breathe, make a mental note to watch for crutch words, and so forth and so on.
I guess: At this point, you have to just trust that you can deliver, I guess.
So ... : You're up next, so ...
Well ... yeah: You'll do great. Just breathe, speak clearly, and well ... yeah.
The Totally Mostly Useless Adverb
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There is literally an epidemic of the incorrect and over-use of adverbs. Adverbs are great! They add flavor to your otherwise boring verb. However, you need to make the call between when it's adding value to your point and when it's just there as a filler.
I personally have only recently been able to get over the "literally" phase, but I catch myself overusing "basically" and "definitely" quite a lot. Crutch words are like whack-a-mole: You get some under control, and new ones pop up.
Just: It's just not necessary to always use adverbs.
Almost: You almost need to catch yourself before you use them.
Basically: It's basically just unnecessary, you know?
Actually: I guess there are times you can actually use them, though.
Definitely: There are definitely real uses of adverbs.
Literally: I use them literally all the time.
Really: Adverbs are really great for describing verbs.
Very: It's very enlightening to know when to use them.
Truly: I truly feel I have a grasp of the concept of adverbs.
Essentially: It's essentially just inserting in extra words to give my sentence more of that wow-factor.
Absolutely: It's absolutely necessary to use them.
Seriously: I seriously don't know if I'm using them correctly.
Totally: I'm totally failing at this right now, right?
Honestly: I honestly don't know how to make this better.
Obviously: We obviously need adverbs, just not all the time.
The Overcompensating Adjective
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Like adverbs, adjectives have a place in your presentations. They help describe things in a way that helps your audience better visualize and connect to your point. You know you're using a crutch adjective, however, when you frequently use it to describe just about anything: "That's a fantastic idea." "This is a fantastic example of image resizing in emails." "We've got a fantastic agenda."
When you overuse adjectives, they lose their meaning. Is your example of resizing emails really fantastic, or is a 30% increase in ROI fantastic? If you use it multiple times in a speech to describe various levels of fantastic, it loses meaning entirely.
Great: Great, let's get started. I'm going to show you a great example of a crutch word.
Fantastic: This is a fantastic example of a crutch word.
Awesome: Instead of letting a noun stand on its own, I have this awesome habit of adding an extra adjective to it.
Excellent: This excellent case study explains why we should be mindful of crutch words.
Definite: There is a definite possibility of also sounding unsure.
The Diluting Preposition(al Phrase)
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Prepositions are tricky. They're necessary ... except when they're not. Often the misuse is just a culprit of falling into colloquial speaking habits. An example of this is adding unnecessary prepositions: "off of" should really be "off"; "call up" can be left as "call".
Prepositional phrases can also be unnecessary if there are more concise ways to say the same thing. This can make you sound like you're rambling or stalling.
Here are some examples of prepositions that are common crutch words/phrases when used incorrectly in a sentence.
Like: Have you, like, used prepositions before?
Of: I personally am just going off of what I learned in grade school.
Up: It's common to trip up over your words when you're nervous, so take a breather before starting.
About: I'm about two seconds away from a nervous breakdown.
At the present time: At the present time, I'd like some cake.
In order that: In order that you and I remain friends, you will need to bring me some cake.
In the process of: In the process of bringing me cake, please consider not using needlessly long prepositional phrases.
Next Steps: Reducing Your Reliance on Crutch Words
Now that you're aware of common crutch words, you may be wondering, "what's next? How do I stop using these crutch words?"
Crutch words, like any bad habit, can take some time to get out of your system. Don't be disappointed if during your next presentation (or next 100), you still find yourself using them. Even the most professional speakers let them slip out sometimes! It's all about making little changes over time to strengthen your public speaking. Each time you don't use a crutch word when you usually would have, consider it a victory!
Here are some tips to get started on your path to overcoming your crutch words.
1. Identify Your Crutch Words
Remember, each person has their own crutch words -- the list above is simply a collection of the most widely-used ones. Use it as a starting point, then dive into your own speaking habits.
If you've recorded videos of your presentations, go through them and listen for any words you seem to be leaning on. Practice speaking in front of a mirror, or record yourself speaking and listen for patterns. Where do you pause? What do you say when you stumble over a sentence? What do you fall back on when you need to steer conversation back to your original point?
2. Monitor Your Presentations for Crutch Words
Not all presentations have dry runs -- but if you get a chance to practice beforehand, actively monitor yourself for your list of crutch words. Each time you catch yourself, start that part over. When you get up in front of your colleagues or that crowd, you'll have practiced without it and not using your crutch words will come more naturally.
Familiarize yourself with your crutch words. Write them down on a piece of paper and glance at it before you begin speaking. Just having a fresh reminder to not use them can mean the difference between a weak argument and a compelling one.
3. Practice Your Public Speaking
Practice makes perfect! There's a whole world of resources out there on public speaking, so take advantage. You can watch videos of TED Talk speakers such as Amy Cuddy, read guides on the topic, or even join public speaking clubs such as Toastmasters where you can practice in front of your peers who are all trying to improve, too.
Most importantly, keep speaking! Volunteer for speaking opportunities. Speak up in meetings. Practice your next business presentation. Actively giving yourself more chances to catch crutch words will help you stop using them over time. You'll sound more confident, persuasive, and come off as a more engaging speaker in no time.