Using Crutch Words — What You Never Noticed

By Blog

Using Crutch Words – here is what you need to know.

  • Using crutch words do not add any value to a presentation
  • They have been around since the beginning of spoken language
  • They fill the gaps so a speaker doesn’t stop speaking so he/she is not interrupted
  • Any word can become a crutch word (and, so, uh, & um) are common ones
  • Generally, crutch words are heaviest when the speaker is unprepared
  • Every language has crutch words, including sign language

I have done plenty of research on the topic of using crutch words and there are ample articles and coaches giving advice about stopping the madness when it comes to crutch words (and hand gestures). I have formulated and given my own advice about how to get rid of crutch words but a light bulb went off in my head this past week.

As my youngest daughter lay asleep next to me with the assistance of the white noise machine, it occurred to me that crutch words are the white noise of speaking! My mind is blown!

In all of my psychology research preparing for my self-guided speaking course, SpeakU, I came across many different research studies about the perception of crutch words. One study rated individuals who “um” at high rates as inarticulate, uninteresting, monotonous, unsophisticated, and lacking confidence –ouch! Additional studies have proven that listeners really don’t hear a speaker’s crutch words and therefore do not judge “uh” or “um” as a speaker in trouble.

web_offer_banner_video_6steps_communicationThe thought occurred to me when debriefing after a presentation this week, that when listening to other speakers in the past the only person that the “uh” and “um” bothered was myself. I suppose this is because I’m attuned to it as a speaking coach. No other person I talked to in the same audience even noticed how many times the speaker used crutch words.

Now that I am reflecting and digesting the additional studies, I come back to my realization that crutch words are just white noise. When a speaker is able to rid themselves of excess crutch words, people notice that something is different. Just like when the white noise machine goes off or a room suddenly goes silent, your ears suddenly perk up to something is different and later notice that the difference is in what is missing. The same rule applies, it may take a while but the audience will notice that something is different and they will realize it is what is missing that makes the presentation so much stronger and forceful.

The Power of the Pause

The primary reason you want to remove crutch words from your vocabulary isn’t just so you sound more sophisticated, it is also part of being an audience-centric speaker. You see, pausing gives your audience time to think. In my book Speak Simple, I give this parallel:

Speaking with crutch words is similar to reading sentenceswithnospacesmakingithardforyouraudeincetothink.

You’ll find your audience “gets it” faster and is more likely to retain your message longer when you pause because it gives your audience time to store that thought in their brain.

In my observation, once an audience notices the difference of a speaker using pauses instead of crutch words, suddenly the presenter seems more knowledgeable and trustworthy. As the cycle continues and it all sets in, the more forceful message resonates with the audience better and the presenter gets more notice from the presentation making it a better than expected success.

How to get rid of using crutch words:

I’ll be honest, there is no instantaneous way to remove crutch words from your vernacular. After watching a video of myself giving a presentation on a favorite topic years ago, I was horrified at my own habit of using crutch words, and decided I had to get rid of them. I will give you the advice that I took for myself and it took 6 months to complete.

  1. Be Aware – You must be aware of what you are saying at all times, including how often you say crutch words. You are not going to get rid of crutch words during your presentations if you do not get rid of crutch words in your everyday speech. When you talk to loved ones at home, colleagues in the office, friends on the phone, and of course when you are giving presentations. (You probably don’t text crutch words; expand that into the rest of your conversations.)
  2. Self-Check – It is easy to begin talking and then comfort overtakes self-awareness of what you are saying. In order to get rid of the crutch words and make yourself sound better as a speaker, you have to periodically and continually check your words.
  3. web_offer_banner_video_6steps_communicationRemember Your Evolving – It will get worse before it gets better. I found great frustration when I first began trying to kick the crutch word habit because the more I thought about not using crutch words, the more I began using them. I can laugh about it now, but the more I used the crutch words the more I had to check my words. It got frustrated and I can see how any individual would want to quit, but after what felt like months of frustration with myself, it stopped and I was not dependent on crutch words anymore.
  4. Make It a Habit – You need to make not using crutch words a habit because when you think about crutch words, you are inclined to use them. I managed to kick the crutch word habit years ago, but since I’m a presentation educator, I talk about crutch words, and when I start talking about them I start using them again. And then I have to self-check myself all over again.
  5. New Words Will Replace Old Words – After I managed to kick my “uh” habit, I started to become aware that “and” crept in and I was horrified. I have been through this process before so it is a process that must continue to ensure that I don’t begin to fall into a new, equally bad habit.
  6. Video Yourself – I’m sure there are many, ok well thousands, of people that would love to slap me for saying to video yourself. Believe it or not, individuals use crutch words differently. It is up to you to figure out how you are using crutch words and make sure that in those situations you become hyper-aware of what you are saying.
  7. Slow Down the Rate at Which You Speak – Speaking fast has its own consequences, but for the speaker it does not allow one to think. The incapability to think promotes the use of crutch words worsening the situation. Not only will you sound better, but pauses (the spaces between words with no crutch words) allow a speaker to think about what comes next which continues life with no crutch words.
  8. Embrace the Silence of a Pause – Don’t fear a pause in your speech when you’re presenting. In everyday conversations, many people use crutch words to prevent someone from jumping in while you pause so the listeners do not derail your thought or take control of the conversation. (Typically speakers that grew up in large families struggle most using crutch words because they don’t want a sibling jumping in.)
  9. Re-Evaluate Periodically – As I mentioned prior, many people kick one crutch word only to pick up another (or a phrase like “and then”) or have crutch words reappear because they’ve been thinking about them again. You need to periodically do a self-check (or video yourself again) to ensure you’re continually improving.

You now see the importance of removing crutch words from your day-to-day conversations; crutch words make you sound inarticulate and uninteresting (amongst many other things) and leaving a pause instead of filling it with crutch words gives your audience that extra split second to think and store your message away in their memory. So, next time you open you um mouth, make sure every word counts.

Additional Resources

How Speak Simple Can Help You

Win more work, increasing your billing rate, and prospects coming to you are all results of being an excellent presenter. Erica Olson created Speak Simple to help technical professionals to become comfortable presenting and excel at each presentation, whether a bid presentation or an educational, content marketing presentation. Learn more about Speak Simple’s flagship program is SpeakU, a self-guided presentation training program.

Tagged under: