12 Speaking Errors That Make You Sound Dumb


Recently I’ve taken on a daunting personal challenge: completely debugging my speaking habits. Not just public speaking on stage, but fixing glitches when I talk during conversations. These speaking glitches may seem minor, but when they add up, they make you harder to understand, less assertive and can even make you sound stupid.

The Big 12 Speaking Errors

The amount of speaking errors you can make are endless. There are situations where these “errors” can be used effectively. But 90% of the time, they are just wasteful. Here are twelve I’m trying to overcome:

  1. Um’s and Ah’s. When you are temporarily lost for words, do you take a brief pause or insert an “um” into dead air. In public speaking these filler sounds are known as crutch words. If you’ve ever watched a TV show, you’ll notice that these crutch words are missing from dialog. There’s a reason: crutch words make you sound dumb.
  2. “You know” & Like. Close cousins to the crutch words are the infamous “like” and “you know”. I rarely use these two, but I have friends that can’t go three sentences without appending a “like” to the beginning of a sentence. Not good if you want people to take what you say seriously.
  3. Not Taking Enough Pauses. Are you the kind of person who has 30-minute uninterrupted monologues? Taking pauses in your speaking allows you to emphasize key points. If you avoid pauses, it makes you more difficult to follow and sound less assertive.
  4. Curse Words. Dropping the occasional f-bomb can add a double underline to what you need to say. But too often it’s just wasteful and offensive. I’ll admit that I can be bad for this, depending on the group I’m with. Reducing this is something I’d like to focus on.
  5. Using $10 Words. Don’t use big words when simpler words can do. One of the disadvantages of having a big vocabulary is you feel the desire to inflict it on everybody. Great speakers use shorter words when they fill the same purpose as a large one. (I’ll admit my writing could probably use a better application of this rule as well)
  6. Talking Too Fast. Unless you are announcing an auction, you don’t need to talk quickly. Talking to quickly shows that you lack confidence in yourself, otherwise you wouldn’t worry about people interrupting you for talking to slowly.
  7. Dragging Out Stories. Unless I know what you’re trying to say within the first 15 seconds, I’ll tune you out. Starting your stories with lengthy preambles will cause people to lose interest.
  8. Self-Bashing. Self-effacing humor can be funny. But where do you draw the line between lightening the mood and showing you lack confidence? Unless it works into a great joke, informing people of your flaws is only good for highlighting them.
  9. Bragging. Self-bashing’s ugly cousin. Bragging doesn’t make you seem confident. It makes you seem like a jackass. Truly confident people don’t feel the urge to trumpet their accomplishments. Let other people brag about you, don’t do it for them.
  10. Not Focusing on One Conversation. If you are having a conversation, focus on the other person. Don’t think about what you need to do the next day. Don’t think about other people you want to talk with. Don’t just wait for your turn to speak. If you focus and listen, other people will do the same.
  11. Forgetting Who Knows Who. Don’t tell a story about your friend Brad if the person you’re talking with doesn’t know Brad. If I need to know who Brad is to understand why the story is interesting, don’t bother sharing.
  12. Talking Too Much About Yourself. Unlike the first 11, this one is true only in excess. Talking about yourself can be a great way to connect with others. But if you spend more than 2/3 of your time chatting about yourself, it only shows you’re self-centered.

Debugging the Errors

The problem with fixing most of these speaking glitches is that they happen automatically. The errors creep into your conversations before you realize it. Unless you actually counted it, you’d probably be amazed at the amount of times you say “um” or “ah” in a twenty minute conversation.

Simply trying to use willpower to curb these errors isn’t enough. Getting rid of these errors from your day-to-day communication requires a completely different approach.

Normal Habit Changing Methods Don’t Work

My first reaction to fix these speaking errors was to use a 30 Day Trial. This is my default method for changing habits, and I assumed it would work here as well. Unfortunately, after a few failed trials, I realized that this approach wouldn’t work. The chance of making a mistake was too high to commit for 30 Days. While it isn’t too hard to commit to going to the gym for a month, it is painfully difficult to try to avoid any verbal crutches for the entire 30 days.

In the last few weeks, however, I’ve been experimenting with a better method. Piecing together this method from great improvement thinkers like Tim Ferriss and Tony Robbins, I call them rubber band trials.

Rubber Band Trials

The rubber band trial is fairly simple:

  1. Keep a rubber band around your wrist.
  2. Every time you make a communication error, you switch the rubber band onto your opposite wrist.
  3. If you can go seven days with the band staying on the same wrist, you’re finished.

My current trial is to remove um’s and ah’s from my speech. The first day of my trial I had to switch the band between wrists twice. The furthest I’ve gone is six days without making a glitch. I’m up to four on my current run.

This method works well for targeting communication because it is hard not to forget the rubber band. Whenever you catch yourself making an error, you can easily switch the band over. Considering how common many of these errors are, it will probably take a few days before you learn how to keep them from slipping out.

I’m still doing a lot of experimenting with this technique, so it will probably be a few months before I can provide any comprehensive advice on the method. But, so far it seems promising as a way to debug how you talk, listen and think.

The Goal of Improved Communication

Once you start a rubber band trial, you become acutely aware of how many communication errors most people make. Within a few days of the trial beginning, I could point out every “um” or “ah” made in a conversation. When you realize how many of these little glitches you make constantly, the goal of improved communication becomes much more important.

  • Me

    No she was right, if you say that if means to show you are thinking helps.

  • Nancy Austin

    Here’s another habit–sort of a cousin to the “um” and “ah” problem–that drives me up a wall–people who draaaag out words when speaking. Instead of pausing while figuring out what to say next, they expaaaaaaaaaand the worrrrrrds ridiculously. I interact and/or listen to people at work who do this all the time, and it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard as far as I’m concerned.

    Maybe it’s a fear that someone else will attempt to get a toe into the conversation and the person believes that filling time in this way will prevent it, or perhaps he or she thinks very slowly, but either way it’s incredibly annoying to listen to. Really, people, it’s okay to pause–let a few silent seconds pass while you think!

    My reaction is that dragging your words habitually makes you sound either aggressive or stupid, depending on your tone. Or possibly both stupid AND aggressive.

  • Guest Poster

    If I like, have to listen to you, like, say ‘like’ one more frigging time, I’m like, going to like, go insane!

  • meow point1

    You should like Shaggy

  • jd

    my man george is the best u dont even know man he is the greastes nigga

  • jd

    sorry man i didnt mean it man we good my brotha goerge is the best still

  • Carl Winslow

    8. Confidence is for assholes.

  • SFKeepay

    Scott H. Young Blog
    Recommend 2
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    17 minutes ago
    Interesting and worthwhile, but surely this should be re-titled “12 Speaking Habits That You Need To Break” or something similar, as many of the highlighted problems do not, in fact, “make” you sound “dumb”.

    This essay needs an editor. Rather seriously, in fact. Spelling errors, grammatical errors, false reasoning, unrelated ideas, etc. Number three, or “Not Taking Enough Pauses”, for example, begins with “Are you the kind of person who has 30-minute, uninterrupted monologues?” and then suggests inserting pauses to “emphasize key points”, and that failing to pause make one difficult to follow and sound “less assertive”. I submit that anyone, unless they are, for instance, behind a podium, that subjects friends, family, co-workers, etc. to “30-minute, uninterrupted monologues” has much larger problems than “pausing”. For instance, everyone you know secretly hates you.

    There are few circumstances more demanding of patience – or more frustrating – than enduring stream-of-consciousness speeches about, say, the comparitive benefits of internet routers or anti-bacterial sheets, or even how you are coping with your mothers new pole-dancing hobby. You may insert all the pauses you can muster, but your monologues are causing everyone around you to plot your death. Try speaking for two or three minutes tops and then giving your converstion partner a moment to respond. You know, having a “conversation”.

    I would like to add a few more speaking habits to the list. Vocal fry is a big issue. Also, mispronouncing “nuclear” as “nuke-you-ler” and using “literally” as a means of emphasis when what you are saying is, in fact, not literally “X”. For example, “I literally got, like, a billion e-mails!” No, Amber, you didn’t, like, literally get a billion e-mails. You got 14 emails, which even a 22 year-old trust fund baby might notice is a bit shy of a billion. Or how about “He literally has the weight of the world on his shoulders” when…well, it hardly matters what circumstances one might say this. It is never, ever going to be “literally” true.

    Also, some of our British brothers and sisters have recently begun using the term “un-pick” instead of “un-pack” when suggesting someone explain a term or idea. For example, “Their sub-culture is honor-based. Now there is a lot in that phrase…let me un-pick it.” No. No, please un-pack it, which is an inelegant but at least logical analogy. But don’t try to “un-pick” it, which sounds like you pulled something from one of your darker orifices, immediately regretted it, and then tried to return whatever it was back to wherever it was.