Opps! A Third Critical Life Skill: Effective Public Speaking


My two previous posts on Critical Life Skills for Young People (Checklists and Backwards Planning ) have produced numerous comments.  But one, from a fellow blogger who has great insight and experience (as a father and business leader) is David Kanigan, who politely reminded me of a third critical life skill for young people – effective public speaking. And I couldn’t agree more.

In fact, because of my personal situation, effective public speaking should have been at the top of the list.  You see, what most people don’t know about me is that for most of my childhood I was a chronic stutterer.  Not just an occasional stutterer, but as someone once said, “John couldn’t lead a group in silent prayer”!

And being a stutterer really bothered me, since I had a fairly good brain, did well in school, but couldn’t communicate my hopes or dreams, or even get into debates with others to prove myself.  So, like most stutterers I just clammed up, did my school work, got A’s and settled into the role of bright, nearly invisible kid.  (Maybe in another blog posting sometime I will tell you the story of how I got over stuttering and became a professional keynote speaker, but let’s get to the real meat of this blog.)

Effective public speaking, and in general being able to communicate effectively to one person or a thousand, is a critical life success skill.  Research on success in business puts effective communication ahead of intelligence or even grades in school. No matter how good your skills or how high your IQ, poor communication skills will limit your ability to influence others, get your ideas across, form strong relationships, build and motivate a work team, and sell your ideas. Employers in today’s marketplace are putting a premium on good communication skills.

80% of success in business and most any occupation today
is attributed to good communication skills.

But sadly, there is little training in schools today for effective communication skills. Classes in public speaking, debate, or Oral Communication skills have been mostly eliminated from school curriculums. So, where do the youngsters of today learn their communication skills and habits? Unfortunately it’s from their peers, movies and sitcoms, YouTube, and social media.  And the communication habits learned are not necessarily those conducive to business or life success.

One bad habit that most youth of today have somehow picked up is the EXCESSIVE use of such “filler words” as “LIKE” and “YOU KNOW”.  If you have ever listened to today’s youth carry out a conversation, whether among themselves or in answer to a teacher’s question or with just about anyone, it seems that every third word is “like” or “you know”, as well as other nonsense words such as “WELL”, “TOTALLY”, “REALLY?” and my favourite, “OMG!”.

“Fillers distract. They drown your message. They impair your delivery by diminishing your ability to align pacing, pauses and vocal variation to content. They make you seem uncertain, unprepared and unknowledgeable. They take up time and add no value.”

Even well educated people have gotten into the habit of filler words, or what some speech experts call “junk words”. Here’s an example from a New York Times interview with Caroline Kennedy where she used a whopping 124 filler words in a 20 minute inerview:

I’m, you know, actually, Andrew Cuomo is someone I’ve known for many, many years and we’ve talked, you know, throughout this process, so, you know, we have a really good relationship and I admire the work he’s doing now and what he’s done, so I’m not really going to kind of criticize any of these other candidates, because I think there are a lot of people with great experience, and, you know, any one of which the governor could easily pick and they’d do a good job.

I think they would make me a really good pick for this job, and, um, it’s up to the governor to decide, you know, who would be the best. Really. And I think there are many ways to serve, and I’ve loved what I’ve done so far, and I plan to continue, I think, you know, serving and advocating for the issues that I think are important. So, if it’s this, that would be wonderful, because I really do think that the relationships that I have in Washington — you know, I worked hard on the Obama campaign, I have a good relationship with many of the people that are coming in to the administration, in the Senate, others, both sides of the aisle, you know, that’s the kind of work that I’ve done outside of politics. It hasn’t been sort of a partisan kind of career that I’ve had. So I think that at this point in time, that’s what people are looking for.

Convinced of her clarity of focus and communication effectiveness? By the way, she didn’t get the appointment from the Mayor of New York!

According to recent research, the main cause of the excessive use of filler words is Distraction or Inattention. To put is bluntly, we just aren’t paying that much attention to what we are saying, who we are speaking to, and not that focused on the topic.

The results of one study indicates that the number of filler words used by participants drastically increases in situations where their attention is divided.

Excessive use of filler words is a mental form of channel surfing while trying to communicate. And as a result of not being focused on the topic or the listener, the speaker comes across as weak minded and wishy-washy (a technical term 😀 ) when trying to influence or communicate.

And an excessive use of filler words does have negative impacts. The majority of communications scholars and researchers agree that the overuse of filler words ultimately negates speaker credibility.

An Effective Tool for Young People to Improve Their Communication Skills

So, if it has become a national epidemic to use excessive filler words and “that’s how all my friends talk, so what?”, is there an effective tool for eliminating filler words and communicating more directly, effectively and confidently?

If the main cause is “mental channel surfing” or a distracted and busy mind while speaking, then the solution is to focus on the topic, the listener, and your own words.  90% of people can’t repeat the exact words in the last sentence they just used when talking to someone. Why? Not really paying attention to the words. Words are powerful.  They are bullets of thought and should not be sprayed around or wasted. Think of your speaking as a laser beam and not a shower head!  Mentally watch the words leave your mouth and strike the audience or your listener.  Just this simple tool of focusing on each word will not only make you a more powerful speaker, but dramatically reduce the number of filler words.

I conquered my stuttering by realizing that my mind was more focused on the fear of rejection and what people were thinking about me than about the actual words I was speaking. Once I began to focus on the words and focus on the listener, my fluency and speaking power dramatically improved. There is a concept called “Mindfulness” and it is basically the ability to be fully present and focused on what you are doing or saying at the moment, and not distracted or mental channel surfing at the same time. That’s the key to effective speaking and communicating.

A Simple Exercise for Kids and Parents

Here’s a fun and insightful exercise you can easily do at home.  Talk about filler words, then for the next couple of days, each person counts the number of filler words used by other people.  While young people have developed filler words as a habit, you would also be amazed at how many adults use unnecessary filler words.  After a couple of days, everyone will be more aware of filler words, then you can start using the “mindfulness” technique of noticing each word as you say it.  Have fun with this and watch the amount of filler words decrease dramatically and the power of your communication increase significantly.

Otherwise, like, you know, it’s, Oh My God, I mean really, you know, like a tough habit to break!

Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

e: john@johnrchildress.com
Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,  Business Books Website

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

John also writes thriller novels!


About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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