Image by hephail, via Flickr
Ummm… so like, okay, in this article, I want to talk about a little thing called “verbal filler.” It’s a big factor in how I approach podcasting, but it may not be something every podcaster wants to mess around with. Still, it’s a fascinating little quirk of human expression that we all have. Maybe this post won’t change the way you podcast, but maybe it will give you a little window into how you use verbal fillers.
So, let’s define this “verbal filler” thing more clearly. It’s simply that collection of extra phrases you throw into your sentences every day. (And so do I, and so does everybody in the world, in any language). “Ummm” is a common one. So are “Uh,” “Like,” “You Know,” “I Mean,” and so on. We don’t usually use these in written communication, of course – unless they’re for a particular emphasis. Verbal fillers come out when we speak.
Image by smif, via Flickr
Now, verbal filler isn’t a bad thing! Not by a longshot. It’s human and natural and normal. When we use these phrases, we’re we’re not really saying words so much as trying to do other important stuff:
• Verbal filler helps us stall for time. Sometimes, you can’t immediately recall the word you need in your sentence. It may feel weird to be silent while this is happening, so we say some filler words while we’re thinking.
• Similarly, we all think about what we want to say at different rates before we say it. So, in an interview situation, some of us pause before we speak, thinking out our answer ahead. Some of us think out our answers while speaking, and simply fill that interim with verbal filler, restarting sentences, or starting and abandoning sentences.
• Verbal filler also creates an unconscious comfort zone around us when we’re called upon to speak in uncomfortable situations. When we’re speaking as some kind of expert, but we don’t quite feel comfortable in that role, we’ll tend to slip in some extra “ummms” and repeat words. It’s a way of saying to any potential listeners, “Don’t worry, I’m not full of myself or anything.”
• Perhaps most relevant to podcasting, verbal filler gives your jumpy nerves some way to express themselves when you’re confronted with a microphone that’s listening to every dang word you say. Eeps!
When you talk with other humans in your daily rounds, you probably don’t even notice verbal filler that much. This is because, when you’re face to face with another human, your brain is busy processing lots of other information alongside what they’re saying. You’re reading their facial expression, body language, and tone of voice. You’re also monitoring the space you’re in: what’s the room temperature? What background noises are happening around you? Are there other people nearby? And it’s wholly possible that you’re also doing other processing in the background of your brain: what do you need to pick up at the store on your way home? What exactly did your partner mean when he said that this morning? What if you tried that blue embroidery floss on that project?
See? You have so much else happening in your brain, it just drops out the verbal fillers and takes in the words between them.
…However, when you’re listening to a podcast, suddenly your brain has a lot less to do. Most of the extraneous inputs I mentioned above are stripped away, and you’re left with a voice, saying things. And in this environment, verbal litter looms larger and tends to get in the way.
This is why, when I edit a podcast, I take out as many of the “ummms,” “uhhhs,” “you knows,” “likes,” sentence restarts, and word repeats as I possibly can. (And for the record, I constantly edit verbal filler out of my interview questions, too!) I don’t take out 100%, because that would make my guests sound too robotic. But with every piece of verbal filler I do remove, it helps reveal the true essence of what my guest is saying.
And that’s really the important detail: every one of us, when we’re talking about something we believe in passionately, can speak with clarity and conviction, and in those moments, our verbal filler tends to fall away, unnecessary. In these moments, we are at our most interesting.
I believe that we’ve internalized this idea of direct, passionate, litter-free speech, and so when we hear someone who speaks in a fairly litter-free way, we tend to pay more attention, because our brains read this as meaningful, impactful speaking.
In an intervew situation, however, no matter how passionate we are about the subject at hand, we often get nervous – and this lets our verbal fillers creep in. So when I spend hours carefully removing verbal fillers from a podcast, what I’m really doing is removing that evidence of discomfort and creating space in the listening landscape for all the fascinating things my guest has to say.
What forms of verbal filler do you find yourself using most? How much do you hear verbal filler when you listen to podcasts?