How to communicate more clearly?
January 18, 2010 1:45 PM   Subscribe

I apparently don’t sound intelligent when I speak. Is there a way to solve this that doesn’t involve therapy or Toastmasters? Please help!

My problem is that every time I open my mouth, whether speaking casually with friends, talking informally with professors, or participating in class discussions, I don’t sound smart. I insert likes, ums, and ahs into every sentence, as well as lose my ability to use anything but the simplest vocabulary. My grammar becomes terrible. I usually try to formulate my entire thought in my head before speaking, but even then I lose the ability to effectively state my case once I start speaking. This results in people not listening to what I have to say, and I think it contributes greatly to my abysmal participation grades in classes.

I was really good at debate in high school, so I know that I have the ability to speak clearly, effectively, and persuasively. In order to do that, though, I had to get into my “debate mode,” which is exhausting, and I’d prefer not to have to be in that mode to say anything remotely intelligent. Plus, being combative all the time isn’t a good way to make friends, I’ve discovered.

I have no intention of joining Toastmasters or another speech making group. I am fine at making speeches, because I can get into my debate mode. It’s conversation and class discussion that I really have problems with, and since it’s the beginning of a new semester I recognize that I should get this problem solved before it destroys my grades and my social life anymore.

Email is
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Jaltcoh at 1:52 PM on January 18, 2010

Well, I hung a copy of this by my desk as a reminder (and because it really suits my sense of humor). It's helped me.

Mostly, though, I recommend that you simply slow down when you're speaking. When you're tempted to use filler words (the "ums" and "likes"), just say nothing. The brief pauses in your speech only really seem long to you. You'll train yourself out of that habit fairly quickly.
posted by amelioration at 2:25 PM on January 18, 2010

I often find that there's a pretty tight correlation between how much I read/what I read and how articulate and intelligent I sound when I speak. If I read nothing but trash, I'll start to lose my ability to communicate my ideas, but when I read higher level stuff (philosophy, polysci, stuff written by really smart people), I tend to be a lot more articulate in my everyday speech.
posted by Geppp at 2:43 PM on January 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

You might consider recording yourself and coding/analyzing your speech afterward. This would allow you to see some patterns in your speech (when and where you say um or like) and track your progress in attempting to improve.
posted by i love cheese at 2:58 PM on January 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm from the wrong side of the tracks in my hometown and my accent can reduce the effectiveness of my spoken communication in some instances. I practiced sounding less poor by recording myself making short speeches and listening to them.
posted by S'Tella Fabula at 3:00 PM on January 18, 2010

Make a rule that you'll punch yourself in the face if you say any of the following: 'like,' 'um,' 'ah,' 'totally,' or end a sentence with 'or whatever.' If you say those a lot, it's probably because you're using too many qualifiers to skirt around your point. Qualifiers add clauses to the sentence, increasing its complexity and making it easy to forget exactly what your point is. Be direct and forceful in your language. You don't need bigger or more impressive words, you just need to use the ones you know with more confidence.
posted by gonna get a dog at 3:03 PM on January 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Recording yourself really is more helpful than you can imagine. Listening to a recording of yourself is 100% different than what you hear as you speak.

Also, following up on gonna get a dog's suggestion... A long time ago here on metafilter, I wrote about a watch technique.

Buy a watch (if you don't already own one). If you utter an um, like, or similar, take the watch off and put it on your other arm. Maybe you're thinking "but I wouldn't wear a watch on my other arm!" EXACTLY. It'll be annoying, which means it'll be effective. Also, as you quickly grow tired of switching the watch from arm to arm, you'll become even more aware of the bad habit that causes you to do so.

Best of luck!
posted by 2oh1 at 3:29 PM on January 18, 2010

I agree with Geppp that reading intelligent, articulate works will help you sound more intelligent and articulate yourself. It'll increase your working vocabulary and your fund of elegant phrases.

I'm not sure that the use of fillers like "um", "ah", and "like" is necessarily your main problem. It's definitely something to work on, but I think that in less-formal situations like a seminar or a casual conversation, people are used to that kind of thing and will automatically edit it out of what they hear unless it gets really excessive. I know I use a fair amount of "like" and "ah" and "dude!" but I am nevertheless frequently accused of "sounding smart"--I think mainly because I have a fairly large working vocabulary.

Can you talk to your friends or professors and get their ideas about things you could improve? Especially if it's affecting your grades, your professors should be able to give you some feedback about what would make you a better contributor. It's hard to objectively analyze your own speech patterns, and I suspect that getting some sound advice about what needs fixing would be a really good first step.
posted by fermion at 3:34 PM on January 18, 2010

-I have to interview people for work, and recording yourself really does wonders.
-Think about who sounds smart to you (characters in movies, books), and try saying some of their lines out loud. How does that differ from your own speech pattern?
-To get yourself in the habit, think about "smart ways" you could answer questions or have interactions. Start small, by practicing what an ideal interaction at the post office would be like and then actually having the interaction.
-Sometimes if I have a long point I want to make, I also jot down a few key words (chili... Impressionism... the Balkans) to jog my memory. That way, I can focus on filling in the details and articulating well instead of remembering what I wanted to say.
-Just like Geppp says: Read some intelligent fiction everyday. I notice a big difference in how I speak when I've been reading something sustained, even if it's just a short story, vs. when my media diet consists of internet soundbites.
-Think about underlying causes. Are there times when you can speak as articulately as you'd like to? Is this because of nervousness or uncertainty in what you're saying?
posted by blazingunicorn at 4:05 PM on January 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I insert likes, ums, and ahs into every sentence

This is absolutely normal. I think you're simply self-conscious about it. Barack Obama is known for being able to give a mesmerizing speech, yet in informal and spontaneous conversations uses these all the time.

Another example I just saw was Kenneth Branagh, on the DVD for Wallander, having an intense and philosophical discussion with the author Henning Mankell. Branagh was full of half-finished sentences, switching verbs or nouns after speaking them, as well as ums, ers, and other tics. Yet he came across as engaged and serious. (They were also both people clearly used to being listened to, and both seemed to continue on with points well past the time they should have ceded to the other.)
posted by dhartung at 5:12 PM on January 18, 2010

Slow down. Be conscious and allow for silences in your speech. People use like, um, etc. often because they feel the need to keep talking over silences. When you feel the urge to say 'like', just pause and allow there to be no words for a moment. The more you practice, the better you will get.
posted by Vaike at 5:28 PM on January 18, 2010

1) Pre-formulating your sentences in your head is the road to disaster. I can't even order pork chops if I go that route. Today I called someone and started talking Swedish, while I'm German and had the first 3 intended English sentences clear in my head; it doesn't work. Pre-order your thoughts instead and make sure you don't go down side-tracks while talking.

2) Last fall, I attended to a seminar by one of the smartest people I've ever met. It was about music and migration and touched upon a lot of very sensitive issues of mid-20th c.-to-present politics; all issues were brilliantly solved or dealt with. He ummed and uh-ed quite a lot, jumbled and re-did whole sentences and also had the somewhat artificial manner of speech of someone who while talking is thinking a lot of related things. Purely seen as a presentation, the lecture was a times quite difficult to follow. He made an enormous impression nevertheless. Stammering is a sign of the trade. I admit, it's better if one doesn't, but hey. There are worse things to beat oneself up about.

3) I have observed earlier in my career that the reactions (quite along the lines of what you say, especially the 'non listening' part) of my surroundings to what I said had nothing to do with my stammering but everything with my defensive mode; this mode was the result of the things I was imagining about myself. People hate listening to people who ooze 'listen to me' out of every pore. A trick to relax about all this is to identify all the moments where one really wants to say something. Often, one only adds something to a discussion because one wants to win a social point, or a smartness star: secondary motivation - to be avoided.

Hope this helps. Also, if you're blogging or participating in (writ-based) networking of any kind, force yourself to use good grammar and a varied vocabulary. This makes everything else much easier.
posted by Namlit at 5:32 PM on January 18, 2010

Please think about this - you haven't told us how you KNOW you sound unintelligent, but you seem convinced that you do. Why? Have you been told that?

Perhaps the problem is far more prosaic. You are as insecure as the rest of us....?....!

You say your participation grades have suffered. I am a teacher. If you participate, you get a good grade. Period. The content shouldn't effect the grade. Why has your grade suffered? Has this happened in every class? You mean that every teacher has given you a lower class participation grade because you say um and er?

Insecurity is a perpetual motion machine. Does this statement make sense to you?

In my view, those who would judge HOW a person speaks but not WHAT a person speaks are probably not worth impressing.
posted by Waldo Jeffers at 5:53 PM on January 18, 2010

Geppp said it. Yes. Read as much as you can, on topics or by authors that challenge you. And rest. And vitamins. Seriously. Whenever I'm healthier/exercising - my vocabulary seems to be suddenly more available.

For me, excising (the equivalent of) "like" and "um" was more about becoming completely disgusted, than anything else. It's intersting how fast you can drop a habit or pattern of speech once you've outgrown it (which seems to be the case for you). I worked as a bartender through school, and by the time I was hired in my field of study, I had aquired a terrible habit of calling everyone "dude". That, and a tendancy to (at least want) to interject swear words more than (necessary) what was acceptable at my new job. I just snapped out if it, payed attention to what I was doing, and dropped those thing from my speech (practically over night).

That's why I think this should be fairly easy for you: you're over it.

There are normal instances of verbal pauses being interjected into conversation (as a means to work out an idea as one is speaking), and then there's something more halting and impossible to listen to - regarding "ums". I have no idea where you are on that spectrum, but if your asking about it here, it obviously bothers you. My advice: listen to other people who speak in a way that you find "not ok". Your own speech patterns will change rapidily.
posted by marimeko at 6:41 PM on January 18, 2010

(misspellings! sorry..)
posted by marimeko at 6:47 PM on January 18, 2010

As many have said above, reading a lot of well written stuff may help. I seem to recall reading somewhere that another thing that can help is reading well written stuff aloud, as if you were a newscaster reading a teleprompter, or an actor, rehearsing his lines. Not sure if it works, as I haven't tried it myself, but I remember considering trying it, after hearing myself speaking on a recording, and cringing mightily at what I heard.
posted by smcameron at 7:09 PM on January 18, 2010

Three ideas about this, from my dual vocations as a public radio producer and generally nervous person.

-I work as a producer for a public radio show. I spend most of my time editing interviews, trying to make people sound a bit smarter. A lot of the little deletions I make are what we refer to as "cosmetic" stuff - deleting ums, ahs, and likes. While it certainly makes people sound clearer, doing this work has convinced me that everybody, from politicians to academics to scientists uses some amount of verbal filler. I think that unless your like-use is really over-the-top, it's probably not making you sound dumb. When I edit, deleting likes helps, but the edits that tend to be more important, at least at my work, are those that better organize people's thoughts for them, for instance, by cutting out a digression they made or by bridging two sentences that shouldn't have been separated.

-Of a piece with that, I think I'm an adequate public speaker, but I used to go to pieces when I had to leave phone messages. I would try to rehearse what I was going to say but when the beep came on, I'd flub it. What's worked for me has been to have a mental outline of the points I need to communicate, like a mental Power Point slide, and abide by that. For whatever reason, it lets me get in and out without spewing garbage all over someone's voicemail.

-Lastly,I used to date somebody who was paying her way through academia as a voice-over actor, and her voice coach warned her against "up-talk," that Valley Girl speech inflection where the speaker makes every sentence sounds like a question. Her coach said it's common for women to do it, and that it invites people to condescend to you. I think her coach was right, but I think men uptalk too. I think it's basically a generational affliction, and I've found (or imagine I've found) that when I force myself to control the tone of my voice (rather than the like/um/ah ratio) I feel like a better, clearer speaker.
posted by WStraub at 9:29 PM on January 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Bill Buckley "insert[ed] likes, ums, and ahs into every sentence" -- and ah, ah, ah, st-st-st-utters, um, too, and he sounded extraordinarily intelligent.

The trick is, he did it s.l.o.w.l.y. and deliberately, while rolling his eyes and using a patrician accent (instructions for Buckley's "Main Line malocclusion" here).

It's all about at-at-attitude, dear boy.
posted by orthogonality at 9:43 PM on January 18, 2010

I had pretty much this exact problem, and I think recording yourself is a great idea. But if you're like me and don't have any means of recording you can still train yourself. It may not be the most effective way for every one, but I managed to cut down the constant "like"s, "so"s, and "whatever"s by keeping an elastic band on my wrist and snapping it (subtly, of course) every time I said one of the verboten words - doing this required me to slow down and actively think about what I was saying, which was also great for curbing random babbling.

Part of your problem may be trying to formulate the entire thought at once - the thought is good, but the words tend to get jumbled as they come out and then you end up sounding stupid. So, slow it down. Don't be worried about speaking a little more slowly, even in informal conversation - you're allowed to take time to formulate your thoughts as you go. I'm not talking about Shanterian diction here, but just taking a little more time to express yourself clearly and thoroughly. For what it's worth, this approach worked wonders for discussion classes and chatting with profs.
posted by meesha at 8:57 AM on January 19, 2010

Sometimes people use "um" and "so" as ways of breathing while talking. If you take a breath when you say those words, try just taking a breath instead.

This is going to sound silly, but reading aloud might help with the grammar.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:27 PM on January 19, 2010

Three follow up thoughts:

Do you focus on finding the perfect words when you speak? This often causes people to stutter and stammer because they're searching for words rather than focusing on what they're trying to say. Just say what's on your mind, and say it in as few words as possible. Filler is a killer.

Confidence is also a huge factor in communication. Try to figure out if a lack of confidence is an issue for you. Do you often not look people in the eye while talking with them? Are you nervous when you speak to someone? Tense? If so, you can certainly overcome this, and the change will have a huge impact on how people perceive you.

Finally, if you think you have no way to record yourself...
...I'm willing to bet your laptop has a microphone built in. Don't have a laptop?
...I'm willing to bet your digital camera has one. Don't have a digital camera?
...I'm willing to bet your phone has a speakerphone option.
You see where I'm going with this. It's amazing to think about how many microphones we are surrounded by at any moment. People realize cameras are everywhere, but there are so many mics as well. Put one to good use.
posted by 2oh1 at 2:28 PM on January 19, 2010

Debate mode is exhausting?

Maybe you don't like speaking. Maybe you consider it a huge amount of work and become resentfully lazy while doing that work.

Perhaps if you could try to get a little more control of what conversations you are in. When you are in conversations, decide how engaged you want to be.

That might help take the pressure off.

In many conversations - especially in groups - you are not required to do any specific percentage of the talking.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 5:50 PM on January 19, 2010

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