How to eliminate your verbal tics

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Do you know how to eliminate your verbal tics? It’s not easy but it’s possible. It just takes some commitment and concentration…

You don’t need to have Tourette syndrome to have verbal tics. I know because I have such a tic myself: It’s the word Umm.

It took me several years to reduce it and while it’s mostly vanquished now, it still reappears whenever I’m tired or under stress.  That’s the problem with tics. They’re sturdy, like cockroaches or lice.

Other tics may be words or phrases such as “like,” (“like I was trying to say, like, the flu is a serious problem…”), “you know,” “so,” or “you think.” I even consider “up talking” to be a verbal tic. (Up talking occurs when the speaker ends every phrase or sentence with a slight rise in pitch — as if they were asking a question. You can hear an example here. It originated with so-called “Valley Girl” speech in the 1990s.)  There are also some physical tics such as constantly brushing your hair out of your eyes, shaking coins in your pocket, moving your shoulders unnecessarily or even rocking from foot to foot.

I see all of these problems all the time, in part because I coach a group of 12- to 17- year-old debaters at my local high school. But I also see tics in the boardroom, where they’re even more troubling. A bad verbal or physical tic can make you look uneducated, dumber than you are, or weak. Not good. Not even if you’re not a regular public speaker.

Here are some suggestions on how to eliminate or reduce any tics you may have:

1) Be AWARE of your tics. Very few people are born as articulate speakers; most of us must train ourselves to become that way. Simply identifying any tic you need to remove is an excellent first step. Ask people who’ve seen you to speak about your tics. Or, record yourself on your cell phone and identify the tics yourself. Yes, it’s hard listening to yourself talk, and even harder to watch, but it’s probably less embarrassing than asking someone else. Here is a link to a passel of cell phone tripods that will help make recording easier. Notice that the least expensive one costs only $12.49. Worth every penny!

2) Write yourself notes. Put plenty of reminders about your tic in your notes. “Remember not to say umm,” appears in all my speech and presentation folders. (I’ve also had debaters who’ve done well by writing themselves directions to SLOW DOWN or SMILE MORE.)

3) Speak more slowly. Generally, we use tics when we’re trying to give ourselves time to think. But if you speak slowly in the first place you’re less likely to need that extra time. Also, slower speech will give the monitoring part of your brain time to “watch yourself” and avoid the tics. And, guess what? You’ll be doing your audience a huge favour if you speak more slowly because you’ll be easier to understand. Slower speech will also make you look calmer and more in control.

4) Embrace the sound of silence. Yes, I know. Western society abhors silence. But what feels like interminable silence to you, the speaker, is likely nothing more than a well-timed pause to your audience. Be aware that pauses will allow you to emphasize certain key points. They signal to your audience that you’re about to say something important. But, most of all, these pauses give YOU the time to think and prevent your tics.

5) Forgive yourself. Getting rid of a tic is hard. Don’t expect yourself to fix it overnight. Depending on your age and how ingrained the habit is, you’re likely looking at a project that will take months or years to change.

Smile and give yourself permission to take all the time you need.

What verbal tics do you struggle with? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Jan. 31/18 will be put in a draw for a copy of Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “more from my site” links, below.  Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

*This post is an updated version of a column that first appeared on my site on Jan. 30/15.