Parasites Will Kill Your Message

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Filler words. Every spoken language on Earth has them. In English, we say “uh” and “um” a lot, or even the more-silly “you know” or “right?” My favorite is the word "like" as a filler word. More often than not, we use fillers to think as we talk, words tripping out of our mouths as we decide what to say next. We know what we want to say, but stumble through even the most basic phrases and conversations.

I don’t know exactly why we do this, but since everyone on Earth does it, there’s something to it, right? (See what I did there?)

Here’s my favorite commentary on filler words, pulled from Wikipedia: “in Russian, filler words are called parasite words."

Amazing! Parasites steal nutrients from their host. They literally suck the life out of the organism to which they are attached. In similar fashion, filler words suck the life out of the words and phrases we speak.

Which sounds more convincing?

“You are, like, one of the best, like, communicators I know. Like, everything you, like say is so, like, thought out, and like, articulated so well. It’s, like, amazing.”

Or,

“You are one of the best communicators I know. Everything you say is thought out and articulated so well. It’s amazing.”

It’s a simple and silly example - try this one:

“There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Check out the full text here.

Would this 1987 line from Ronald Reagan’s speech ‘Address at the Brandenburg Gate’ held the desired impact if he used a bunch of filler words? Of course not. It would have sounded weak, and certainly not presidential. But this — THIS was a great speech — an all-timer.

Avoiding filler words makes sense during formal speeches, but in daily life, are they a big deal?

I've found that in normal, day-to-day life, you are not going to be criticized for the occasional filler word. It’s part of our normal lexicon. But, do you know anyone who avoids these kinds of words? I do. And when I think about how they communicate, people describe them as being clear, concise, and convincing. I believe that if you decide to work on limiting filler words from your speech, you will be ten times better and more effective in your daily routine. Your conversations will have deeper impact; people will understand you the first time and will be more likely convinced of your position. It’s pretty amazing when that skill goes into practice.

Think about it - do you use filler words? I do. I’m working on using them less. Understand this, as well: we will never be perfect. We will always have some degree of filler in our speech because we’re not robots. I’ve been working on this skill for a decade, and I still do it all the time. Give yourself a break and take a first step toward improvement.

So how do we get there? How do we improve? I have two recommendations.

First, slow down.
In Western culture, we talk quickly, slurring our words to speed to the finish. We rush ourselves into blurting out the fastest response we can muster, then spend twice as long explaining or restating what we just said. What would happen if you took just half a second to collect your thoughts before you answered a question or made your point in a conversation? What if we actually knew what we were going to say, and then delivered it with conviction and confidence?

Second, practice.
Make it a habit to run little drills out loud to be better. There is no shortcut here — it is a skill that requires repetition and time. How much time will be dependent on you. Do you think Reagan just came out of the womb as the “Great Communicator?” No matter who you are, you need to practice. I guarantee Reagan practiced over and over again.

Stop letting your filler words drain the power behind your communication. Don’t let the parasites kill your message. Slow down and practice.

Do This:

  1. Write out a quick story from your childhood. It can be anything — good, bad, indifferent. Then record yourself (on your phone, audio recorder, camera, whatever) reading that story at a normal pace. Then put the written story down and tell the same story to another person and ask them to time you. Compare the two stories — are they the same length? Do they contain the same details? Ask your listener to critique your story as a written piece versus a top-of-mind delivery. What’s different between the two?
  2. Take the written story from above and read it again, this time at a pace that will end up being 1.5–2x slower than the first time you read it (if you read the story at 3:00, aim for 4:30 to 6:00 delivery time). Soak in the sensation of talking slowly (it will be weird). Practice enunciating every word and taking actual breaths at periods. Read the story as many times necessary until it feels natural.

Win the room,
Jason