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How to Stop “Likes,” “Ums,” and Other Distracting Speaking Behaviors

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Part of quality speaking instruction — particularly speech delivery instruction — is helping students eliminate their distracting speech behaviors. If you're familiar with Erik Palmer's PVLEGS acronym for speech delivery (a must-use, in my opinion), such behaviors are Poise issues.

Here are some of the distracting habits my kids bring into their pop-up debates and small group discussions each year:

  • Fillers (“like,” “um,” “you know”)
  • Mispronunciations
  • Verbalizing one's panic (“Oh no, I'm completely forgetting what I was going to say”)
  • Fidgeting (e.g., pulling down on the hem of one's shirt, playing with hair, etc.)

So: how do we help our kids get rid of these things? First, I think we have to self-experiment: how do we get rid of our own distracting tics? In the below process, I use myself as an example. Self-experimentation makes us more credible for our students and also helps us see whether something can really work or not.

Once you've tried the below process out on yourself for a while, you might be ready to share what you're doing with students and lead them through some or all of the steps below. An ideal “first lesson” would be having students watch film of themselves speaking — in a 1:1 iPad scenario, this would be fairly simple to set up; in a less techy setting, you might film students having a whole-class discussion one day, upload the video as “link-only” to YouTube [1], and then schedule the computer lab for the following day so students can go, find themselves in the YouTube clip, and identify the “must-die” behavior they'd like to work on.

How to eliminate distracting speaking behaviors

Step 1: Identify the behavior that must die.

An easy method would be to film yourself giving instruction at least once a month; listen to a random five minutes of the instruction while doing something mindless, asking yourself, “How could I speak better here?” An even easier method: ask your students to keep track of any annoying tics for a day.

My speaking issues, for what it's worth, are as follows (I've been hearing myself speak way more than usual lately, primarily because of filming for the Teaching with Articles Workshop). These things drive me crazy:

  • “Fer” instead of “for”
  • “Like”
  • “Um” (or, as I pronounce it, “Om”)
  • Fidgeting with things (coffee cups, paper clips, etc.)
distracting behaviors reminder attached to computer

Figure 1: Old school reminder. The flaming skull helps.

Step 2: Set up a way to remind yourself of the “must-die” behavior(s). 

One easy method would be to write it on an index card and stick the index card to your computer (see Figure 1). Another way would be to make your phone tell you about it every day. If I went the phone route, I'd do it in a way that would make me pay attention, setting it to say something like, “Hey Dave, when you say ‘fer' instead of ‘for' you sound like a goon.”

What you're trying to do here is make the unconscious conscious. Had I known how absurdly distracting my toying with a paperclip was in this clip, I wouldn't have done it. (And don't even get me started on the lack of Life in my part of that interview.)

Step 3: Whenever you're speaking and you catch yourself using a must-die, address the behavior immediately.

I would not recommend snapping yourself with a rubber band — nothing harsh. Just fix it. Here are some scenarios:

  • When I hear myself saying “fer” instead of “for,” I simply restate the sentence with the correct pronunciation.
  • For a filler-type word such as “like,” simply eliminate the word. Say “enjoy” or “such as” instead.
  • When I become aware that I'm fidgeting with a coffee cup, I put it down.

Note: I've heard of some classrooms where the kids are trained to yell whenever the word “like” is spoken. That's intense!

Step 4: Have someone regularly give you feedback on the must-dies. 

One great way to do it, if you're working on more than one must-die at a time, is to divvy up who and how you get assessed.

So for example, with the “fer” thing, I'm going to tell one of my more observant third hour kids to keep an eye out for it on Wednesdays. For “like,” that's something both my wife, Crystal, and I struggle with, so we're going to make a blood pact not to allow another “like” to pass from the other's lips without dire punishment (and/or gentle reminding). (Crystal doesn't know about this yet, but she will when she reads this article.)

If you're not feeling like using another person just yet (“Oh come now, Dave, that's too embarrassing!”), just set a reminder in your phone or on your calendar to film yourself teaching once every few weeks. Make sure to schedule in the time to actually watch yourself on film.

Step 5: If all else fails, try something else. 

Habit change is challenging, but not impossible. If you find yourself not improving after a few months of this, try something new.


  1. Make sure you or your school has completed proper consent forms prior to any kind of filming.

Thank you to Erik Palmer, the mind behind PVLEGS. This acronym helps my kids so much.

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2 Responses to How to Stop “Likes,” “Ums,” and Other Distracting Speaking Behaviors

  1. Gregg Goers March 8, 2016 at 9:26 pm #

    Dave, excellent post. I liked the “assignment” you gave your third hour student. I’m glad to see I am not the only one who is working on eliminating distracting behaviors. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for students to assign a classmate similar role on a particular day, provided they can do it in a productive way.

  2. Jason Sweet March 9, 2016 at 3:10 pm #

    It’s always good to be reminded of how we might sound to our students. As a World History teacher, being able to tell a good story is important. (If the story is good, and the storyteller speaks with a passion in his/her voice, the more likely the audience will listen!) What helps me to avoid the um’s etc. is to follow my own lecture outline that my students have as it is being projected. It helps me to stay on track as well as to remind me of what I need to elaborate on.

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