The harsh, ah, truth about your vocabulary

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If you’re like me, you’ve probably not heard of a speech disfluency until now, however, again like me, I’m sure it is a habit you have unknowingly adopted in your everyday.

Disfluency: A speech disfluency, also spelled speech dysfluency, is any of various breaks, irregularities (within the English language), or non-lexical vocables that occurs within the flow of otherwise fluent speech.

In simple terms, a speech disfluency is any interruption in the normal flow of speech. Most commonly, or at least in my experience, these are sounds such as ‘um,’ ‘like’ or ‘ah’ and, unofficially, represent a break in conversation.

Some of us are most in tune with this when we are nervous, tired or stressed, however, it has been reported that disfluency terms make up 20 per cent of the average person’s daily vocabulary.

Despite the common nature of this, these simple breaks have the power to completely discredit an individual or argument, and communicate doubt or uncertainty in the content being delivered. They also lead to your listeners disengaging with you as a speaker because of the delivery, regardless of the depth of the content you are providing them.

Throughout the last eight years, I have made a conscious effort to correct my own speech disfluencies on a daily basis and continue to do so, however, it also has made me very in tune with when these happen around me, whether it be in a client meeting, at a speaking engagement or while others are on the phone around me.

TRUTH BOMB: It is a massive distraction as a listener to have someone ‘um’ing’ and ‘ah’ing’ their way through a conversation and completely devalues what you are saying, especially if it is a first time meeting.

So, I guess now you want to know how can you start to erase these bad habits from your everyday? I’m not an expert by any means, but I do have four easy tactics that I have adopted over the years to help reduce my day-to-day disfluency.

Listen to yourself

Tune into yourself and start taking note of how many times you use ‘um’ or ‘like’ in a conversation, particularly when speaking with a client. You may even choose to record yourself or ask a colleague to provide feedback following a meeting, so you have an immediate example to assess yourself against.

Warning: it will surprise you as much as it will annoy you.

Master the art of pausing

Once you have had a chance to self-assess, start to harness the power of a pause in place of your most common disfluent word. It’s the difference of a sentence being “We recommend you engage us because, um, we offer the most holistic solutions for your business” and “We recommend you engage us because we offer the most holistic solutions for your business.” Which would you be more confident in? I think we all know the answer…

Maintain eye contact with the person you’re speaking to

It’s unlikely you have ever noticed this, but it is so much more awkward to ‘um’ and ‘ah’ your way through a conversation or presentation if you are looking someone in the eyes. Similarly, you’re more likely to digest someone’s content if you hold eye contact and this will ultimately make you more engaged and confident in what you are communicating.

Slow down

Slowing the pace at which you communicate will also reduce your want to revert back to bad habits, as it gives your brain time to catch up. It doesn’t have to mean you sound like you are on ‘slow-mo’ mode, but even a slight reduction in pace will help you gather your thoughts and avoid getting ahead of yourself. As an added bonus, speaking a bit slower improves the ability of your audience to understand you.

Still not sure if this is a bad habit of yours? Below are some common speech disfluencies that you may encounter in your day-to-day:

  • Repetition or correction: We repeat or correct words that we previously said. When correcting, we may substitute, delete, or insert new words. The correction still carries the same idea as the words previously stated. For example, ‘If Kayla does, if she does not go to the mall then I will stay home.’
  • False start: We say something, but stop mid-sentence and restart on a new idea. For example, ‘I’ve never seen, I like that design.’
  • Filled pause: We use filler words as a way to express pauses or to assist in correcting statements. For example, ‘She drove – uh, I mean, rode with a friend to the store.’
  • Interjection: The use of sounds to indicate that we agree or are in the process of judging something. Common interjections are ‘uh-huh,’ ‘mm,’ and ‘nuh-uh’
  • Exiting term: These are phrases that are placed between the part of the statement that we will be correcting and the actual correction. Exiting terms are used when we edit our words before we complete the full statement. Common exiting terms are ‘I mean,’ and ‘I’m sorry.’ For example, ‘The toy costs three – I mean, four dollars.’
  • Discourse marker: We use these words or phrases to help begin a statement or keep a turn. However, these words do not add anything to the meaning


Share your tips on breaking this bad habit with me in the comments below – I’m all for learning new techniques and would love to share them with my team at P4 Group.