Clear Comm Consulting

For those of us who, uh, have trouble, you know, getting the words out.

Jan 28, 2009

They are called crutches. Words or phrases we use when we’re searching for just the right word — and these crutches can start popping up all of the time. At the very least it is an annoyance to those who are listening to us, but it also can do long term damage to our personal credibility.

Let me give you an example from someone who should know better. Me. You’d think someone who speaks for a living would know better, but a crutch can be very sneaky. I was teaching my first training class for real estate giant CBRE when the person running the program pulled me aside during my first break. “Do you mind some feedback?” he asked. “Sure, no problem,” I said. I thought I was doing fine. “Do you realize you say, ‘You know’ a lot?” Damn! Here I was teaching communication skills and I’m shooting myself in the foot along the way!

It was a great lesson and something I’ve learned to overcome. I’ll have more on that in a minute, but first another lesson from someone who should know better.

Caroline Kennedy hoped to be the next Senator from New York, but she also didn’t realize how much damage a crutch can cause. In an interview transcript with the New York Times she said “you know” 142 times! It became a distraction in her effort to pitch herself as a viable option for the Senate seat and, while I don’t know why she ultimately pulled herself from consideration, the “you know” problem didn’t help.

In solving the problem, we often need help from others. Ask those who hear you speak regularly to listen for your crutches. Almost all of us have them to one degree or another. (President Obama — “Uh.”) Many times bright people can have this very problem. My theory is the smart person is always searching for the perfect word — the perfect phrase — to capture their thought process. Well, forget that. You can’t possibly get your mouth to keep up with your brain — your brain is moving much faster and that causes the bottleneck at your mouth! Instead, be satisfied with your general word choice instead of searching for the perfect option among four versions bouncing around in your head!

The next solution for this common problem — and one that has worked miracles for me — is to simply pause. The short pause helps you figure out where you want to go next and it’s actually very effective from the audience’s perspective. You are thoughtful instead of stumbling. You are clear rather than nervous. You seem together with your ideas. You’ll get more credit for what you bring to the conversation.

Two final points. The pause can take time to get used to because it will feel as if it takes too long. It actually is gone in a flash to your audience — what seems like a long time to you won’t even be noticed by them. Second, when you have gotten rid of one crutch word or phrase, guess what? Another pops up! Stay ever vigilant and you will be respected for what you have to say AND the way you say it.

Cary Pfeffer is the founder of ClearComm Consulting,, a Phoenix, AZ-based communications consulting firm which is helping people tell their story. He works with clients to make the most of their media and live audience communication. Email him at: [email protected]

Follow along with Cary on Twitter @CaryPfeffer

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