Ilyse Robbins, actress, director, choreographer, teacher, and presentation skills coach at Mohr Collaborative, guest blogs today to share her opinion on just how “casual” presentations should actually be.
A recent NY Times article laments the prevalence of “NPR voice” on the radio. The article traces this forced casualness back to the advent of social media, when “The ‘sort ofs’ and ‘reallys’ and ‘ums’ and ‘you knows’ that we use in conversation were codified as the central connectors in the blogger lexicon.”
In my work coaching professionals as they prepare to present to their senior management, I always recommend that they aim to deliver a conversational presentation. But conversational should not translate to casual. Too often, these professionals fall into the trap of speaking as they text, tweet, e-mail, and chat with friends. Phrases such as “like I said,” “you know,” and “sort of,” and words such as “like,” “um,” and “right?” pepper their early presentation rehearsals.
I consider these words to be “filler words” and this is what they do:
1) Make you sound unsure, less knowledgeable, and less confident: When a presenter um’s, the listener wonders why the speaker doesn’t have the word quickly at hand. The phrase “sort of” tells the listener that you are not positive and/or confident about your subject. The audience wants to know that you are in control of the information and that you will be able to move your project forward.
2) Lessen the respect you are showing or reprimand your audience: Someone who has the ability to greenlight your project or promote you doesn’t want to sit through a presentation that sounds like you are chatting with a friend at a club. They also don’t want to feel chastised or stupid – phrases such as “like I said” and “you know” suggest that the audience is a step behind the speaker. Putting forth your argument in a clear, concise, and professional manner gives respect not only to your audience, but also to the material you are presenting.
3) Take precious time from your presentation: When I record presenters and play back the video, they are often surprised by the volume of filler words that creep into their presentations. It is definitely a habit that can be broken, but it takes practice. By the third or fourth recording, after many hours of rehearsing out the filler words, they often shorten their presentations by a third – freeing up time to add additional information and opening up space for questions.
A few years ago, I observed an innovation team whose project stood out from the rest for its ambition. This team proposed a high-risk initiative that could have leapfrogged the competition. They received just the reception you might expect – half the audience loved it and half the audience hated it. But some of the people who hated it didn’t hate the idea; they hated the way it was presented. One of the speakers was too casual, almost cavalier, even in comparison to the rest of his team. He concluded the presentation with this pronouncement:
“Obviously this is a pretty big, you know, kind of, out there idea. But I think, you know, our history shows we execute on big ideas like that all the time.”
Instead of instilling confidence, he projected a less thorough, less respectful, and over-confident approach.
When you use filler words, it makes it hard for the listener to trust you. These words sneak in out of habit and/or nerves. And the more we use filler words casually in writing and conversation, the more likely we are to use them in situations where they undermine our credibility. I highly recommend practicing speech that is free from filler words. I can’t, um, like I said, stress enough, you know, how hard it can sort of be to follow information, like littered with filler words – right?