Verbal Viruses can Destroy your Presentation

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Verbal Viruses can Destroy your Presentation

By Elizabeth Peterson, M.A., CCC-SLP

Excerpt from, How to Speak like a Broadcaster and Lead like a CEO


Damaging verbal filler words are sounds used in speech such as “um, like, ya know, stuff, uh-huh,” or noises that come from lip smacking, tongue clicking or throat clearing that is not necessary for your message.  When these type of filler words are used excessively, they become “verbal viruses” since they impair and breakdown the quality of your message and professional image. This is extremely ineffective for public speaking.


Any type of non-meaningful verbal noise made during your message can become a damaging verbal virus.  Teenagers commonly speak using verbal viruses.  Who wants to discuss important business topics with someone who presents like an adolescent?  Verbal viruses disrupt the flow of speech and distract, cause your listener to work harder to understand, and discount your level of credibility and professionalism.  In the business world where communication is a key value for leadership, there can be no place for verbal viruses.  If you suffer from verbal viruses, don’t be dismayed.  The good news is, there is a cure.


Where do verbal viruses come from?

Causal factors for verbal viruses are nervous behavior, talking too fast or lack of preparation.  Verbal viruses become injected as the speaker is coordinating his or her thoughts. After a while, it becomes a reinforced habit.  Some speakers are not even aware they have this habit until someone brings it to their attention.


Some fast talkers are also challenged with verbal viruses.  When speakers have a lot they want to say or become excited, their thoughts move faster than what their speech articulators can accommodate. As a result, a filler word gets injected into the statement to essentially “buy” time for the next thought to formulate. Verbal viruses can also be used to stall for time while thoughts are being arranged.  It is very easy for this behavior to become habit, because it is a natural way for fast talkers to communicate.


Regardless of the causal factor, this is a habit and behavior that should be eliminated or significantly reduced for public speaking. A verbal virus can damage the reputation and limit the credibility of a well-intended speaker, and serves no purpose in professional conversations or presentations.


Speech will never be perfect. Our thoughts and speech mechanism move at the same time. Talking is a fine motor skill. Verbal viruses become distaining when they are consistently used at the beginning of a statement. People get into the habit of starting a thought with a verbal virus. When you are deep in explanation, it is not unusual to connect moving thoughts with an” umm” or some other filler word. Ideally we should not use any.  Verbal viruses are noticeable and distracting when used at the begging of a statement. If this is you, it is worth getting this behavior under control.  If you use them occasionally to connect a thought, that is okay. The bigger problem is to start every line of with a “So…. In this graph…”.


Finding a Cure for Verbal Viruses


Before a verbal virus can be reduced, you must first increase your awareness of the behavior and have insight on how frequently it appears in your communication.  There are several approaches for facilitating insight and awareness into this behavior.


  1. Identify your personal filler words

Before generating your plan for reducing your verbal viruses, it is important that you take a moment to realize whether it is due to a nervous behavior or has become a reinforced habit.  In your speech notebook, reserve a page for this exercise and write down what specific verbal filler words you use and/or physical behaviors such as lip smacking you employ that interfere with your speech.  In addition, identify the specific situations when it happens.  Does it occur all the time in general? Is it prevalent in specific situations such as speaking to an authority figure, specific individual, or group? Once you have awareness of the behaviors, you are well on the way toward your verbal viruses being cured.


  1. Keep a tally

Keeping a tally is an excellent approach for improving your awareness of verbal viruses. My clients are very successful with this technique. To increase your awareness and to break this habit, get a new post-it note each day. Each time you use a verbal virus, add a tally mark. Place the date on your scratch paper or post-it note for each day that you do this and keep them for the next two or three weeks. Clients have reported that they are astounded at the amount of tally marks found on their paper. The act of making a tally mark for a period of a two to three week does two different things. One, it increases your awareness of the behavior, and two, it begins to decrease the behavior because it has been brought to the forefront of your mind.  Clients have reported that this activity has not only increased their awareness, but has also been a good intervention for modifying it and has helped them to reduce this behavior during public speaking.


  1. Find support.

Elicit support from a trusted friend or colleague who can give you a signal or monitor every time a verbal virus is used.  It is helpful having a trusted partner to work with when trying to have habits brought to your attention and diminished.  Former clients have commented that eliciting support has been a helpful experience. The next time you are going to do some public speaking, get someone to keep track of them during your presentation


  1. Rephrase it.

When you catch yourself using a verbal virus, and if it is natural, repeat or paraphrase your statement without the damaging verbal virus.  Rephrasing your statement will help reinforce your awareness, and the act of repeating will allow you to distinguish the behavior.


  1. Use a planned carrier phrase.

Verbal viruses tend to appear between new thoughts.  Often someone will say, “umm” before they launch into a new idea.  One approach for eliminating verbal viruses is to transition into your next thought using a carrier phrase. A carrier phrase is a planned word or phrase that can be used as a bridge to transition over to your next idea. Vary the carrier phrases or you will have a new verbal virus. This is a helpful strategy for public speaking situations. Listed below are examples for consideration:

  • Well
  • Actually
  • As a matter of fact
  • In addition to
  • By the way
  • Before we move on


Often verbal filler words are used as an immediate response to a question.  Someone will ask, and before the speaker provides information the word “um” is stated.  Verbal viruses appear automatically as filler while the speaker arranges his or her thoughts.  To combat this, plan carrier phrases in advance that will transition you to answer the question without an unnecessary filler word.

Examples are:

  • That is a timely, thoughtful, or good question.
  • Interesting point or interesting point of view.
  • I like where you are going with your thought.
  • You seem to have some good background knowledge or experience.
  • To be sure I understand, the question is…
  • You can also paraphrase the question back to the group, and then respond.


It is helpful if you are with a group of people to repeat the question.  It is highly possible that while you are in the act of repeating the question, you will be prepared to move forward with your response without the verbal virus.


Predicting questions and planning a response in advance will help with that sudden urge to use a filler word before providing the answer.  If you are going to speak on a topic or lead a meeting, chances are you can predict questions someone may want to ask.  A good planning strategy is to predict three to five questions that could possibly be asked. Planning your responses in advance will allow you to be more fluent with your response and not be thrown off by the question. As an additional benefit, this activity will make you better prepared and increase your confidence.


  1. Internal Pausing.

When you feel that need to say “umm” or another type of verbal virus, resist the urge and replace the filler word with a silent pause.  It is perfectly acceptable to have a natural pause between words. Often speakers, especially when nervous, will feel that there can never be a pause within statements, because it is perceived as an excessive amount of time. Short pauses are very appropriate.  Skilled speakers use natural pauses regularly.  It helps the listener to process and digest the information.  It also prevents the speaker from speaking too quickly. Working with intentional pauses is an effective strategy for organizing your next thought while maintaining good flow of your speech.


Speaking along the speech stairs will help you coordinate natural pausing and thought organization together for improved fluency.  Often filler words are caused by a fast rate of speech where the words and thoughts are competing to come out. Adding an intentional pause on the speech stairs will help with coordinating your speech mechanism with your thoughts and minimize the likelihood of using a verbal virus.


  1. Just say it in your “thought bubble”.

If resisting the urge to say a verbal virus is just too intense (while you are working on trying to eliminate this habit from your speech), then go ahead and say it in your thought bubble. Say it to yourself in your head and then verbally continue with your message. This is a win-win situation because you can use your verbal viruses freely, but your listener will never hear them. My clients have commented that this strategy is helpful because it provides an outlet when the urge to use a filler word is strong.  Simply say it to yourself, and then move on with your message.


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