Like, Um, You Know

Verbal tics may be holding you back. How to identify them and overcome them. Totally.

Are there consequences if we don’t pay enough attention to the way we speak?


Diane DiResta, a speech pathologist who runs her own communications consulting firm in New York: If you want to get to a certain level, especially in a professional environment like most businesses, you have to project the right image. You have to speak the way people you aspire to be speak. Your speech is related to status.

Have you seen instances where people come to you because Valley girl speak was holding them back?

DD: All the time. It’s amazing how much impact one little thing like intonation has. I tell my students to repeat these two sentences after me: “Today is Tuesday?” and “Today is Tuesday.” They hear the difference. You must bring your intonation down. On a subliminal level, people who are listening to you hear something that’s not quite right.

What’s the best way to rein in ditzy-sounding speech?

DD: It’s such a habit that we don’t even hear ourselves. The first step is ear training and awareness. Listen to yourself on tape. Once you can hear yourself doing it, you can work on stopping it. If you’re worried about sounding stilted in an interview, just tone your speech down without eliminating your expressions. Your passion and energy are what’s most important.

What if you’re still having trouble controlling it?


DD: Another effective method is to assign a buddy to give you a signal, whether it’s just raising a finger when you’re at a meeting or tallying the number of times you use pause fillers. It gives you a record. Practice around your friends and family. It usually takes 30 consistent days of working on it. You need awareness, you need a substitute, and sometimes the substitute is a pause. People are afraid of silence so they say “um,” “okay,” or “like.” When you get used to pausing, that gives you the option of not saying it. You have to think about what you’re doing.

Are there more subtle verbal mistakes that hold people back?

DD: Absolutely. I was working with a woman at a director level, and her boss said to me, “She should really be able to fill my shoes and be the next VP, but she’s not standing up for herself.” The problem was that she used wimpy words such as “sort of,” “hopefully,” “maybe,” and “kind of.” Those are words that weaken conviction. She couldn’t say definitively what her position was. It was never about her skills or her intelligence. She just needed to present herself powerfully. This is very typical. Once the woman learned how to do that, she got the VP job.