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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, December 1, 2013

Filler mosquitoes

I once had a colleague who liked the phrase “sort of”…a lot.  He once recorded a record 81 “sort of’s” in an hour-long talk. Not only did these unnecessary qualifications weaken his presentation, but the regular use of a filler word (or phrase, in this case) hindered communication of his message.

We’ve all used them…the ahs, ums, and you knows that creep into our speech when we’re searching for the right words. An occasional filler word is like a solo mosquito - possibly annoying, but not much of a concern.  Too many filler words, however, are like a swarm – the audience is too distracted swatting them away to pay close attention.

Lately I’ve noticed a new filler word cropping up in my own speech; actually. Yes, this is a legitimate word, but I (and several friends) seem to use it as a crutch.  Why say something is “actually over there” when simply “over there” would suffice? Even real words, when used as fillers, can detract from our point.

How do we rid ourselves of these words?  I think the first step is awareness.  In Toastmasters, each meeting features an “Ah Counter”, a person who records each speakers’ filler words and reports back at the end of the meeting.  Anyone in our lives can function as an “Ah Counter” if we ask; friend, roommate, cat (ok, maybe not the cat).  Try this exercise: ask a friend to track your use of filler words during a normal 15-minute conversation.  Then, after a brief break, have another 15-minute conversation with the same person, actively trying to reduce your filler word count. If we create a new habit in our everyday speech, that habit will carry over into more formal speaking situations.

Let’s banish those verbal mosquitoes with  some virtual bug spray; awareness, and practice!

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