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I'm an assistant professor of neuroscience at Washington State University in Vancouver, where I use tiny zebrafish (the size of an eyelash!) as a model system to study human hearing loss and how we can prevent it. I'm also a long-time Toastmaster and I teach communication workshops. This blog represents the merging of my two passions - science and communication, which has really become one central passion - the science of communication. There's a revolution in science right now...the idea that we scientists should sometimes leave the lab and talk about what we do, and why we do it, to real people. This blog looks at why we should do this, and how to actually talk about science with non-scientists (and with each other!). Portions of this blog are also featured on Qualia, the AAAS MemberCenter blog site.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Fight those filler words

Whether it’s a scientific talk or a wedding toast, what we say is important.  Just as important, though, is what we don’t say.  Filler words-those “ums”, “ahs”, “likes” and “you knows”, take power away from our words, as the audience fights to stay on course, to understand our message, while dodging filler word obstacles. 

I once attended a talk by a renowned biologist (who shall remain nameless) that featured breathtaking images, cutting-edge technology, and an “um” every 10 seconds.   Yes, I still learned a lot, but imagine how much more I would have learned if the biologist’s speech had been as smooth as the time-lapse movies of this person’s data.

So how do we get rid of those filler word obstacles?  Start simple…in ordinary conversation.  Next time you’re talking to your significant other, or best friend, mom, dad, cat, or dog, pay attention to your filler words.   If your spouse asks you a question, do your start your answer with “um…” before stating your answer?  Ask your conversation partner for a “do over” (you know, like in 4th grade kickball) and answer the question again, sans filler word.  In my experience, becoming aware of those fillers, and making a conscious effort to eliminate them from normal conversation, goes a long way toward ridding them from more formal speaking opportunities - like scientific talks.

Check out this epic spoken word piece by slam poet Taylor Mali, where he addresses the issue of filler words (and vocal tone…which we’ll get to in future posts) in a fun and compelling way.

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