Wednesday 21 November 2018 8:05 am

Erm… How your speech skills could be holding you back

Follow Katherine Denham
I remember a speech that an influential central banker made recently. The introductory comments contained a lot of filled pauses, like “ums” and “ahs”, as well as stretched and repeated words.

When the speaker switched to using a script (that is, reading aloud from paper), the speech pattern totally changed.

In speech terms, it was a lurch from being verbally unclear, yet authentic, to being easier to follow, yet totally inauthentic.

To be intelligent with speech is to achieve a sweet spot in how we come across to others – especially at work. It’s a balance between remaining sufficiently clear in expression, confident in voice, and yet being authentic.

Will the odd “err” and “erm” interrupt how listeners perceive us?

While the use of some filler words is acceptable (approximately 1.28 in every 100 words is okay), The Umm Report – commissioned by Gweek – suggests that overuse of fillers can make a speaker appear less intelligent, less educated, and lacking in people skills.

But it’s not just about filled pauses. Stretched words (“weell” “soooo” “iiiiit’s”), disfluent repeats (“if if if”), and overuse of “you know” and “like” could suggest that you’re trying to say too much in one go. Your voice pitch may have also turned flat in the process.

Effective communication is actually quite difficult. The question is: do we take the easy route when it comes to sharing our thoughts or pitching ideas by opting for the ease of technology?

Email avoids the difficulties associated with speech. But while email is quick to use, it bypasses the essence of influence and relationship-building.

We spend time and money on our appearance, because we realise how it has influence over the way we are perceived – think of a first date, job interview, or a sales pitch.


If our speech and communication skills in “real life” are no match for our clothes and social profiles, where does that leave us? “Great shirt, but I can’t follow a word that you’re saying.”

How we speak and communicate is a vital part of our identity, and determines how successful we are in life. It’s also a clear way to sell ourselves and what we stand for. So how should you communicate?

First, keep everything simple and short, pausing briefly for thought between speech utterances.

Rather than maintaining constant eye contact (which can be stressful), another tip is to allow for “thinking eyes” – which is helpful for subconscious speech planning.

And while short-form speaking notes are fine, scripts and tele-prompts will always limit how authentic you seem.

According to The Umm Report, 61 per cent of us believe that the way we speak has negatively affected us at work, and 54 per cent claim it has cost us a job interview. For one quarter of us, it has impacted our love lives.

But remember that speech skills do not change in a day. It’s a gradual learning process, and something you must continuously work to improve.

The benefits of being able to communicate clearly and confidently will help you reach your full potential – not just at work, but in life.

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