Using Filler Words. Taking a Disability Angle

I am sure that many of you have taken a course on public speaking at some point during your career. I did in business school and have done a few other seminars throughout my career. I remember one professor in University, in particular, who publicly shamed me for how I spoke. Maybe he didn’t know that I was hard of hearing, and the majority of hard of hearing people may sound a little bit different. Or maybe he didn’t know that I also had a speech impediment, which runs in my family. Or maybe he didn’t know that combining a speech impediment and hearing loss exacerbates the speaking problem. Whatever the case, his tough criticism stuck with me in a negative way for a very long time. I still think about it to this day even though I have successfully spoken publicly hundreds of times.

While I have spoken about my speech impediment, hearing loss, disability and so forth, I have never really delved deeper into specifics of my speech impediment, notably using filler words. They are usually meaningless words that fill pauses in our speech. Examples that I commonly use are “umm”, “like” and “hmmm”. An interesting fact is that we typically use some kind of filler or pause every 4.4 seconds within our speech. Using them is part of our natural speech pattern and we all use them, some more than others.

What’s interesting is that so-called public speaking experts say using filler words detracts from the quality of the speech and may even give the impression of nervousness, lack of intelligence, lack of credibility, etc… Yet, using fillers in our day-to-day conversations is extremely common. I guess if someone uses filler words constantly it may actually get in the way of what they are trying to say. I can definitely see this. But what if someone is using them no more and no less than what a typical person would use in regular conversation? Would you have a problem with that? If you ask me, my answer would be “no”. I likely wouldn’t notice because it’s what we are used to.

Taking it 1 Step Further

From a personal perspective, I use filler words to reduce the frequency of my stuttering. For those who don’t have a speech impediment, you may not understand or appreciate this perspective. When someone stutters they are encountering a speech block. The person is blocked from continuing what they are trying saying on a specific syllable. Often times hard sounds like “d” and “b” are blockers for people. I have gone through extremely intensive speech therapy during my lifetime and have learned techniques to work through these blocks, but they happen from time to time. I strategically use filler words to help maintain my flow and prevent blocks. For the average person who has listened to me speak likely would never realize that I am doing this. However, you would know if I’m experiencing a block in my speech if the flow has been interrupted by an actual block.

Given the fact that we all use filler words more often than we likely realize, regardless of whether or not you have a speech impediment or not, let’s just accept them for what they are. They are, and likely will always be a part of regular conversation. The best public speaking strategy is to be yourself – tell stories, use good visual aids and show your personality. The rest will take care of itself.

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