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3 Presentation Skills Training Tips to Cure "Verbal Viruses"

Posted by Elizabeth Levey on February 27, 2015

by Elizabeth Levey

elizabeth-levey-1Well, here we are, in the thick of cold and flu season. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’ve had a runny nose since Thanksgiving, and I’m sick of it. Luckily, in just a few weeks, the sun will come out, the snow will melt, and we should be able to start leaving the house without a travel pack of Kleenex and a Ricola tucked in our cheeks. But enough about seasonal viruses — what about viruses that are more pernicious, more insidious than the common cold? I’m talking about verbal viruses.

In a time when silence is uncommon and even scary, verbal viruses, or verbal fillers, are running rampant in much of today’s corporate communication. There is nothing credible about verbal viruses. Verbal viruses are words, sounds, or phrases used to fill silence when you are at a loss for actual words. They can also be attributed to ineffective repetition of words or phrases. Here is a list of common verbal viruses:

  • Umm            
  • So,..
  • You see…
  • Right?
  • You know what I mean?
  • ...aaaand...
  • Such as
  • Uhh
  • ...buuut..
  • You know
  • Look,
  • ...like...
  • Well,...
  • (Mouth tick)

So, you’ve gotten your diagnosis, but what to do instead?  What’s the best alternative to a verbal virus?  Pause, maintain eye contact, and breathe.  It can be compelling to watch someone think, but we don't necessarily want to listen to someone think.  And when you pepper your presentation with verbal viruses, that’s exactly what you’re doing – thinking out loud.  If things are going well with your presentation, your audience will absolutely stay with you while you take a pause for a few seconds, and you’ll continue with your credibility and composure in tact.

Is it okay to say “ummm” or “ahhhh” once or twice within your presentation?  Of course! We’re human presentation-skills-training-52beings, not robots, after all.   But one of the biggest problems with verbal viruses is that they’re so deeply ingrained in our muscle memory. So chances are if you’re saying “ummm”, you’re most likely saying it a whole lot more than once or twice.

What can you do to eliminate verbal viruses from your muscle memory?  Get started with one of these presentation skills training tips:

  • Play the verbal virus game! Practice your presentation with a partner, and instruct them to repeat your “ummms” and “aahhhhs” right back to you, in real time.  Distracting? Yes.  But it will hone your self-awareness to a fine edge.

  • Use real-life moments. Decide that from the moment you step into line at Starbucks to order your coffee, until the moment you leave, that you will not allow a verbal virus to escape your lips. You may find yourself speaking very slowly, but that’s okay — baby steps!  Before you know it, you’ll be challenging yourself (and succeeding) in making it through a whole conference call devoid of verbal viruses.

  • Record yourself. Recording is truly the gold standard for developing your verbal virus self-awareness.  Set up a video camera while you rehearse, record your side of a phone call. Playback and listen – you will likely be very surprised at what you hear.

I wish I could tell you that a verbal virus will last only 7-10 days, like a cold.  But unfortunately, they’re a little more tenacious than that. But the good news is, verbal viruses are completely curable!  With a bit of time and attention, you can eradicate them from your presentations, and keep your audience hanging on your every word.

What's your most common verbal virus? What do you do to rid them from your speech? Let us know in the comments below!

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