Shave Those Whisker Words

Like, What Are Whisker Words?

Have you ever had to sit through a presentation in which the presenter’s speech pattern is riddled with so many “uhs” and “ums” that you lost focus on the message and started an “um” tally? Not everyone thinks about this habit in the moment, but now that we’ve mentioned it, you’ll no doubt begin to realize that filler phrases such as “like, um, uh, y’know, so, wait” have become colloquially rampant in our culture. As facilitators and meeting leaders, it can be an incredibly distracting habit.

At automätik, we’ve dubbed these types of phrases “whisker words” and are doing our part to “shave” them down and erase them from corporate events. We don’t typically write whisker words in emails or other written documents, so why do they show up in our verbal conversations and vocabulary?

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When we dive deep into why we say “uh” and “um,” we find that words are linked with thought process.

According to psychologist Herbert Clarke, the “uh” and “um” is our brain essentially telling us “I’m not done processing and I need a second!” When someone is considered an expert in a field, we think that shouldn’t happen during his or her presentations. The reality is that we’re all human and not everyone is a trained public speaker, so out come the distracting “ums, uhs, ahs.” While understandable, speaking this way can diminish your credibility and professionalism.

“Um, uh, and ah” are all examples of whisker words, but that’s not where whisker words stop.

“Like” and “so” are also commonly used but can be even more distracting and ineffective. These words demonstrate the same “my mouth is moving faster than my brain and I need time to catch up” as the other whisker words, but the difference lies in the kind of word being used. “Um” is a filler word that is more like an utterance with no actual meaning behind it. In contrast, “like” and “so” are conjunctions leading to another part of a statement. In our experience, “like” and “so” are far more disruptive and may cause a listener to check-out sooner than an “um” or “ah.” Additionally, avoid using “right,” “m’kay,” or “okay” at the end of a statement. These words indicate a search for validation from the audience and can distract just as much as any other whisker word. So, what’s the remedy?

How do I shave my whisker words? Here are two suggestions…

Get a Bell

At automätik, we enlist a little prop called the “um bell.” The bell is used as an audible reminder not to use whisker words while speaking. When someone uses a whisker word in a meeting, we either say “ding” or ring the bell. It’s understood in our organization that the bell isn’t supposed make the speaker uncomfortable or humiliated; instead, it’s an attempt to help them “shave” those whisker words from their vocabulary.

Practice this on your own first! Watch any movie with Jeff Goldblum—this may sound strange, but bear with us)—particularly Jurassic Park, and ding how often he says the three big ones: “um, uh, ah.” You’ll probably miss a good chunk of the dialogue during his scenes.

Once you’ve seen what dinging someone else is like, try and give a speech about a topic and ding yourself every time you sputter a whisker word. It doesn’t have to be in front of anyone—just try it using a mirror. Be honest about how often you use whisker words and see how much of your story is drowned out by dings. The next step is to apply this practice to your every day interactions. For example, if you and your significant other are having a conversation about your day, every time you use a whisker word, say “ding” (or have the other person hold you accountable). Eventually, you’ll notice that you catch yourself “dinging” in everyday interactions.

Do you, uh, get it?

Whisker words are a part of our everyday lives. For some, it’s significant, and for others, it’s minor. One thing that’s universal: our brains need to take a second to process and release information. We are all subject to it no matter how many times we “ding” ourselves. The best method to prevent the further spread and use of these parasitic pauses is to practice, stand in front of a mirror, slow down when speaking, and act as if you’re giving a speech. Talk and ding. You will not only improve your professional credibility, but the quality of your everyday interactions as well.

We, like, hope you, um, learned something!