12 Speaking Errors That Make You Sound Dumb

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Recently I’ve taken on a daunting personal challenge: completely debugging my speaking habits. Not just public speaking on stage, but fixing glitches when I talk during conversations. These speaking glitches may seem minor, but when they add up, they make you harder to understand, less assertive and can even make you sound stupid.

The Big 12 Speaking Errors

The amount of speaking errors you can make are endless. There are situations where these “errors” can be used effectively. But 90% of the time, they are just wasteful. Here are twelve I’m trying to overcome:

  1. Um’s and Ah’s. When you are temporarily lost for words, do you take a brief pause or insert an “um” into dead air. In public speaking these filler sounds are known as crutch words. If you’ve ever watched a TV show, you’ll notice that these crutch words are missing from dialog. There’s a reason: crutch words make you sound dumb.
  2. “You know” & Like. Close cousins to the crutch words are the infamous “like” and “you know”. I rarely use these two, but I have friends that can’t go three sentences without appending a “like” to the beginning of a sentence. Not good if you want people to take what you say seriously.
  3. Not Taking Enough Pauses. Are you the kind of person who has 30-minute uninterrupted monologues? Taking pauses in your speaking allows you to emphasize key points. If you avoid pauses, it makes you more difficult to follow and sound less assertive.
  4. Curse Words. Dropping the occasional f-bomb can add a double underline to what you need to say. But too often it’s just wasteful and offensive. I’ll admit that I can be bad for this, depending on the group I’m with. Reducing this is something I’d like to focus on.
  5. Using $10 Words. Don’t use big words when simpler words can do. One of the disadvantages of having a big vocabulary is you feel the desire to inflict it on everybody. Great speakers use shorter words when they fill the same purpose as a large one. (I’ll admit my writing could probably use a better application of this rule as well)
  6. Talking Too Fast. Unless you are announcing an auction, you don’t need to talk quickly. Talking to quickly shows that you lack confidence in yourself, otherwise you wouldn’t worry about people interrupting you for talking to slowly.
  7. Dragging Out Stories. Unless I know what you’re trying to say within the first 15 seconds, I’ll tune you out. Starting your stories with lengthy preambles will cause people to lose interest.
  8. Self-Bashing. Self-effacing humor can be funny. But where do you draw the line between lightening the mood and showing you lack confidence? Unless it works into a great joke, informing people of your flaws is only good for highlighting them.
  9. Bragging. Self-bashing’s ugly cousin. Bragging doesn’t make you seem confident. It makes you seem like a jackass. Truly confident people don’t feel the urge to trumpet their accomplishments. Let other people brag about you, don’t do it for them.
  10. Not Focusing on One Conversation. If you are having a conversation, focus on the other person. Don’t think about what you need to do the next day. Don’t think about other people you want to talk with. Don’t just wait for your turn to speak. If you focus and listen, other people will do the same.
  11. Forgetting Who Knows Who. Don’t tell a story about your friend Brad if the person you’re talking with doesn’t know Brad. If I need to know who Brad is to understand why the story is interesting, don’t bother sharing.
  12. Talking Too Much About Yourself. Unlike the first 11, this one is true only in excess. Talking about yourself can be a great way to connect with others. But if you spend more than 2/3 of your time chatting about yourself, it only shows you’re self-centered.

Debugging the Errors

The problem with fixing most of these speaking glitches is that they happen automatically. The errors creep into your conversations before you realize it. Unless you actually counted it, you’d probably be amazed at the amount of times you say “um” or “ah” in a twenty minute conversation.

Simply trying to use willpower to curb these errors isn’t enough. Getting rid of these errors from your day-to-day communication requires a completely different approach.

Normal Habit Changing Methods Don’t Work

My first reaction to fix these speaking errors was to use a 30 Day Trial. This is my default method for changing habits, and I assumed it would work here as well. Unfortunately, after a few failed trials, I realized that this approach wouldn’t work. The chance of making a mistake was too high to commit for 30 Days. While it isn’t too hard to commit to going to the gym for a month, it is painfully difficult to try to avoid any verbal crutches for the entire 30 days.

In the last few weeks, however, I’ve been experimenting with a better method. Piecing together this method from great improvement thinkers like Tim Ferriss and Tony Robbins, I call them rubber band trials.

Rubber Band Trials

The rubber band trial is fairly simple:

  1. Keep a rubber band around your wrist.
  2. Every time you make a communication error, you switch the rubber band onto your opposite wrist.
  3. If you can go seven days with the band staying on the same wrist, you’re finished.

My current trial is to remove um’s and ah’s from my speech. The first day of my trial I had to switch the band between wrists twice. The furthest I’ve gone is six days without making a glitch. I’m up to four on my current run.

This method works well for targeting communication because it is hard not to forget the rubber band. Whenever you catch yourself making an error, you can easily switch the band over. Considering how common many of these errors are, it will probably take a few days before you learn how to keep them from slipping out.

I’m still doing a lot of experimenting with this technique, so it will probably be a few months before I can provide any comprehensive advice on the method. But, so far it seems promising as a way to debug how you talk, listen and think.

The Goal of Improved Communication

Once you start a rubber band trial, you become acutely aware of how many communication errors most people make. Within a few days of the trial beginning, I could point out every “um” or “ah” made in a conversation. When you realize how many of these little glitches you make constantly, the goal of improved communication becomes much more important.


  • http://www.nielsbom.com Niels

    I thought the (original) rubberband was for when you made a mistake then you could “punish” yourself for snapping it on your wrist. A small physical reminder to your subconscious mind that you don’t want a certain behaviour.

    Goog: http://www.43things.com/entries/view/545593

  • Vincent

    Scott, what do you think about using “Um” to show that you’re thinking? For example, someone in the audience asks you a question you don’t know how to respond to. You need to take a moment to carefully consider your answer. If you don’t say “Um” to show you’re thinking, the audience would think, “Why is he just pausing?” Would you scrunch your face to show you’re thinking or say “Give me a moment to think about it?”

  • http://www.scotthyoung.com Scott Young

    Niels,

    That could be one application. This method is a bit of a mix of a few different techniques.

    I don’t normally use aversion therapy with my personal habit changing methods.

    -Scott

  • http://cheerfulmonk.com Jean Browman–Cheerful Monk

    I tend to talk too fast. That isn’t always because of lack of confidence—it’s a trait of visual thinkers. Visual thinking tends to be faster than thinking in words, so it’s hard to communicate what’s going on without speeding up the words being uttered.

  • http://Successsoul.com Shilpan | successsoul.com

    Scott,

    Most crucial aspect of public speaking from my experience is to learn art of buying listener to commit their time in first 60 seconds. If you are mindful to have flawless 60 seconds, you will be given chance to make few mistakes here and there and still have captive audience.

    Shilpan

  • http://www.scotthyoung.com Scott Young

    Vincent,

    This might just be my style, but I don’t find using “um” to show your thinking helps.

    Say what you will about politicians (most) tend to be great public speakers. Yet you rarely hear them start answering a question in a debate with a long “um….”

    A better approach, if you need time to think, is to rephrase the question, e.g. :

    “What do you think about policy X, Mr. Johnson?”

    “That’s a good question. I feel policy X will have important ramifications because… *start answering question* ”

    -Scott

  • http://www.tully.ca William Tully

    I like the one about “Forgetting who knows who” (#11). If the other person doesn’t know Brad, you should be able to bring them up to speed quickly if necessary – if it’s going to take you an hour to establish who Brad is and how he is pivotal, then forget it.

    I was out car shopping the other day and the car has an in-dash USB port for the stereo – great! I inquired about whether you could have a mix of items (documents, images, music, etc.) on a USB stick and if the radio would ignore the non-music or if it had to be just a music stick. The sales person then proceeded to tell me all about USB technology, the different sizes you can get (apparently you can get a 32mb stick up to an 8gb stick!), how easy it is to transfer things to it, and how I can download iTunes for free and rip CDs… Basically, if I know Brad, and you know Brad – please don’t spend an hour telling me who Brad is.

    (great post Scott!)

  • http://www.etavitom.com etavitom

    so right on! i am going to look at this list before i give every speech. thanks!!

  • Diego

    Scott this is another great post. Ums and ahs, likes and yaknows, make me crazy(er). I remember R. Buckminster Fuller steepling his fingers while he gathered his thoughts and then said because he knew he had been at it for a while, “I might be praying, but you don’t know that.”

    I have a slight disagreement. Smaller words tend to be used by speakers who want to raise the emotional pitch of their speech. “10$” words are used by, and understood by people who are trying to be more precise in their speaking.

    Now if I could ration my profanity better.

  • http://www.freelanceguru.co.uk Freelanceguru

    Would be amazing if any one person could master all of these. ALthough the elastic band might be something of a fashion crisis.

  • http://www.scotthyoung.com Scott Young

    Diego,

    Using a long word, when it is more precise, is better. But be careful, sometimes you can feel the urge to use a complicated word when it means the same thing as a simple one. In which case, go with the simple word.

    As an example, I have friends in Environmental Design who tell me they lose marks in a presentation if they say “utilize”. Why? Because “utilize” and “use” mean basically the same thing.

    Freelanceguru,

    Of course, the elastic band isn’t what’s important. I’m sure you could find a bracelet that suited your tastes.

    -Scott

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  • Maru

    Great idea.
    I’m not sure if you’re already posted a followup to your rubberband experiment. Did it work?
    What are your conclusions about the experiment?

  • Caitlin

    Hello Scott,

    I am looking for resources to use to broach the subject of profanity with my middle school students. I just came across your article. I like what you have to say about the variety of different verbal miscues that tend to make people sound unintelligent and I am wondering if you have any other suggestions for targeting the specific behavior of cursing with middle school students. As a teacher, I am tired of hearing my students curse and I don’t think they understand just how unintelligent it makes them sound.

    Any ideas on how to address this with them would be greatly appreciated. Thanks for your time and thoughts!

    -Caitlin

  • http://www.scotthyoung.com Scott Young

    Caitlin,

    Good luck with your goal, however I don’t think you can easily change someone else’s behavior unless they are personally motivated to change.

    -Scott

  • sunny

    “using “um” to show your thinking helps.”

    Did you mean “using “um” to show YOU’RE thinking helps”?

  • Pam W

    You do not need to publish nor is it intended as criticism of content as I intend to use your points in class tomorrow! However, you might want to correct the spelling of “to” in the following and then upload your content again.

    Talking Too Fast. Unless you are announcing an auction, you don’t need to talk quickly. Talking TOO quickly shows that you lack confidence in yourself, otherwise you wouldn’t worry about people interrupting you for talking TOO slowly.

    Very appropriate and useful points to share! Thanks!

  • http://cherriesfloor.wordpress.com Brianna

    I think I have to work on trying not to talk over someone. Thanks for this Guide! :-)

  • Me

    No she was right, if you say that if means to show you are thinking helps.

  • Nancy Austin

    Here’s another habit that drives me up a wall–people who draaaag out words when speaking. Instead of pausing while figuring out what to say next, they expaaaaaaaaaand the worrrrrrds ridiculously. I interact and/or listen to people at work who do this all the time, and it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard as far as I’m concerned.

    Maybe it’s a fear that someone else will attempt to get a toe into the conversation and the person believes that filling time in this way will prevent it, or perhaps he or she thinks very slowly, but either way it’s incredibly annoying to listen to. Really, people, it’s okay to pause–let a few silent seconds pass while you think!

    My reaction is that dragging your words habitually makes you sound either aggressive or stupid, depending on your tone. Or possibly both stupid AND aggressive.