One of the points that can’t be stressed enough is the importance awareness plays in communicating effectively. Being aware of how you communicate, however, isn’t always easy. It usually takes another pair of ears and eyes to increase awareness. (That’s what speech coaches are for.)

In this post, I’d like to bring your attention to a common problem many people have, but are unaware of having: the verbal tic.

What are verbal tics? They are those repetitious sounds speakers make unconsciously to fill air time. Sometimes they take the form of “Um” or “ah’ or “you know.” Another common one is “like, like you know…” and recently I noticed a speaker using “right?” every few words.

Sometimes they’re called non-words, or fillers. I prefer to call them verbal tics because to those who have them, they are as repetitious as physical tics. Once a listener notices them, they become a big distraction. And like a facial tic, they are not easily ignored.

The unfortunate part of having the tic habit is that it interferes with your meaning, making you more difficult to understand. You see English gains meaning from where a sentence is stressed, or a word emphasized.

For instance, the simple question, “How are you today?’ will vary in meaning depending on how it’s said. If we say “HOW are you today?” the meaning is different than if we ask, “How are you TODAY?”

But when a person has a verbal tic, we are unsure of the meaning because the emphasis gets lost. “How, er, are you er, today? Those non-words diminish the effective of the sentence.

How do you know if you have this problem?

To find out if this is a problem you suffer from, ask a friend. They are usually aware of it. The other way to discover if this is a problem you have is to record your part of a phone conversation. Don’t worry about having a few non-words, but if you have twenty or more tics per minute it’s time to correct it.

If this is something you do, what can you do about it?

1. Become aware of when you are using the fillers or non-words;
2. Learn to pause; and
3. Put a period (with your voice) at the end of every sentence. Most people with this problem end their sentences with an upward inflection, so the sentence in never completed in their mind. That’s why they insert the ” ah,” or “um” and continue on.

Fortunately, this is a relatively easy habit to stop. It just takes awareness and following the three simple steps listed above.