How To Cure The “Content-Free Speech” Virus

There is an epidemic afoot in the land that you won’t find in a list of infectious diseases. I call it the “content-free speech” virus, and it is seriously degrading the quality of discourse at every level of society.
Be warned: Failure to treat this insidious malady can destroy careers, reputations, deals and entire organizations. The afflicted are unable to avoid interspersing their speech with entirely content-free words or phrases.

They often sound like this:
( Read aloud for maximum effect)
“So . . . I’d like to take a few minutes of your time to . . . y’know, like, um . . . talk a little bit about people who . . .um, y’know . . . say they are interested in being better communicators, all right?

“So . . . long story short . . . some of these people . . . okay . . . they think they are really good speakers. . . okay . . . but . . . y’know . . . they actually aren’t . . . y’know, like . . . as good as they think.

“So . . . I mean, y’know . . . it’s important for anyone . . . y’know . . . um . . . ah . . . who wants to be a better communicator . . . okay . . . at the end of the day . . . to . . . um . . . make a commitment to improving their . . . y’know . . . communication skills by y’know, like . . . long story short . . . focusing on the problem, okay?

“So . . . what people can do is . . . y’know, like, um is to like find an expert who can . . .
y’know . . .help you learn some tips . . . okay . . . and techniques to like, y’know . . . get better at presenting.”

Of course, the above is something of an exaggeration. Or is it?

The indiscriminate use of the word “so” has become so widespread that The New York Times took note in a feature story reporting that “so” has become “a verbal tic that mimics ‘well,’ ‘um’ or ‘like’ . . . ”

A recent healthcare workshop provided a case study of symptoms, and cure. The lead presenter — an experienced medical researcher, educator and veteran speaker — used the word “okay” (another variation on the well, um, like theme) to end a sentence 19 times in 15 minutes. I know, because I counted.

In every other way, this doctor was a textbook example of excellent public speaking technique. He had infectious enthusiasm for his subject. His language was clear. His explanations were concise. He used anecdotes to illustrate key points. He paid close attention to his audience’s interests, needs and concerns and worked hard to make his presentation as interactive as possible.

But his overuse of the word “okay” dramatically reduced the effectiveness of everything else he was doing and saying. The verbal tick made him sound like a bad used car salesman.

Not good.

At the break, I introduced myself to the doctor, and he asked me how he was doing.

It turns out he was completely unaware of his overuse of the word “okay.”
I suggested that he simply go silent when he felt himself getting ready to say “okay.”

The word was adding nothing to his presentation except distraction. He agreed immediately, thanked me for pointing it out, and said he would try the technique when the meeting resumed.

During the second half of his presentation, I could see the wheels in this speaker’s mind spinning as he approached the ends of his sentences, and he cut his “okays” by 50% after the break after a single “dose” of advice.

There is no magic cure for the “content-free virus.” It takes work to get better.

What’s the first step? Here’s the prescription, without the content-free language, culled from the example that begins this story:

“It’s important for anyone who wants to be a better communicator to make a commitment to improving their communication skills by focusing on the problem. Find an expert who can help you learn some tips and techniques to get better at presenting.”