I spend a lot of my time listening. As a journalism student, it is my job to ask questions and listen intently to the answers in order to line up a thoughtful interview. I listen to lessons from instructors and to the discussions in the classroom all day long. I also ingest a lot of audible media; radio, podcasts and, music, as many of us do. And as I listen, I’m always struck by how well-spoken people can command attention. I find that I listen more intently when someone can present ideas clearly, without pauses and filled with “um-s” and “ah-s.”
But how do they do that? Turns out, it’s not that easy.
I set out to eliminate the word “like” from my vocabulary and speak more professionally – in just two weeks.
For many students, this is crunch time before graduation, when we’ll be sent out into the real world to fend for ourselves. Being able to articulate our thoughts clearly and to adapt to a professional environment is something we’ll be judged on, to be sure.
Janna Holmes, PhD student in applied linguistics and discourse studies at Carleton University and communications and research professor at Algonquin College, suggests that this is a crucial process for students to learn.
“Students should be focused on being more professional,” says Holmes. “That’s entirely what their education is about, is learning these new genres and how to engage in them. So much of your professionalism is gauged on how you use language.”
For me, “like” is a filler word. I use it when I’m pausing, thinking, or just out of habit.
At first, I tried to quit cold-turkey. I could easily will myself to stop using “like” so much, right?
To do this, I put the exercise on my mind at all times and made a conscious effort not to use that word.
This did not work. Trying to be conscious of this constantly proved to be a challenge. According to Holmes, my failure isn’t surprising.
“It takes time. it takes practice. There’s more to it than simply being conscious of it,” she says. “I think that that’s a strategy that you could try to start using, but there’s more to the conversation if you are removing it from your vocabulary entirely.”
Since the days are so full with other tasks and responsibilities, I found myself forgetting about my habit and slipping back into my regular speech pattern. Then, after I strung a sentence together that was riddled with “like” I remembered that I’m trying to quit. In general conversation with friends and colleagues the word “like” is hard to avoid.
I needed to try something else.
Back in the early days of my five-year bachelor’s degree I found myself in a Psychology 101 class. Somewhere in the three-hour lectures in a room filled with over 200 people, I remembered learning about Pavlov and his classical conditioning. Back then I remembered thinking of his methods as brainwashing, but now, it seemed like a great way to trick myself into stopping the “like” habit.
So, I put an elastic around my wrist. Every time I used the word “like” – I gave it a snap.
Brainwashing worked as a reminder for the exercise, but I think it’s more effective when you’re not aware that you are being brainwashed. It also depends on the circumstance you’re in.
“I think you could probably have an easier time going one entire conversation trying to remove a specific term than saying ‘I’m going to be more professional in my communication,’” says Holmes. “It would come down to how embedded that term is in your vernacular.”
Time to seek hands-on help.
I turned to Toastmasters, a volunteer-based community organization that is focused on public speaking and offering support for individuals to practice their speech skills.
According to Toastmaster and Vice President of membership at the Centretown branch, Alton Wu, it’s something he has been working on for nearly three years.
“I was about to make a client presentation which required me to speak in front of people,” says Alton. “Some people come in to prepare for an interview, or to work on a speech for a wedding.”
For others, like me, who are trying to eliminate a word to speak more professionally, it’s all about practice.
“Everyone has their own filler word, the most frequent would be ah-s,” says Wu. At Toastmasters, those filler words are counted by an “ah-counter,” someone dedicated to marking all your mistakes and reporting them to you at the end of the meeting.
“We’re very much a feedback based group,” says Wu.
But ultimately, you work at your own pace to advance the skills that you want to work on.
“I compare it to a gym or a sporting club, everyone is working on something specific, or maybe not at all,” says Wu. “Basically it’s up to you how much you want to know, how fast you want to progress.”
With clubs all over the city, help is easily accessible for someone like me. As a student about to graduate there’s a lot of work to be done on being considered for a real-life job.
“Language has always been changing. Always evolving,” says Holmes, “and there’s always been this attitude that young people are not speaking properly, are not writing properly, are not communicating professionally or maturely.”
As I initially set out to change that perception for myself, I wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped to be. But with the advice I’ve been given and a little more time, being able to use language appropriately in a professional context after graduation is something I am feeling way more confident in.