An article in the April issue of Psychology Today focuses on an issue familiar with those of us in Toastmasters, but to some extent with a somewhat different, even favourable, position.
One goal in Toastmasters continuously is to reduce, ideally weed out, filler words and sounds; the point of view expressed in Psychology Today is that the person or circumstances dictate some flexibility in applying such a strategy.
Thus, what many regularly view as distracting interjections – ums and ahs, you knows, etc. – rather may be heard as “tiny conversational tools, gently guiding dialogue forward”. The author posits that filler words “signal that the speaker is having trouble producing a thought” – no argument from Toastmasters here – and that such utterances “ask the listener to stay tuned while the problem is resolved”. The Toastmasters perspective takes more into account the listener, who’s trying to decipher continuity in the message.
The author also asserts that filler words ‘alert listeners’ – as opposed to distracting them – so they will pay greater attention to what follows. This may be so at times, but in my experience the listener is just as likely focused on piecing the flow together.
What many in Toastmasters would also question is a research finding that filler words can actually be positive aids to understanding and remembering a message. I can recall a speaker of some repute at a World Press Freedom Day luncheon, whose continually ending sentences with filler words was quite frustrating, generating the opposite result.
It is fair to point out that context does influence the desirability of limiting verbal pauses. For example, verbal distractions will negatively impact a job interview or public presentation; but in casual conversation they come across as a more natural part of speaking, and ‘perfect speech’ could even be unsettling.
Other points raised in the article would seem somewhat less contentious.
Speaking in a higher-pitched versus a lower-pitched voice is generally a disadvantage. There are occupations, such as opera singers, where the former quality is rewarded. But usually, a lower voice is considered more appealing, more likely to enhance credibility. A common feeling is that “low voices signal a more aggressive, dominant, and confident individual”. Consider those who do audio work for commercials: a commanding type of voiceover is typically what we hear.
Nervousness tends to cause a voice to be higher when speaking in public. Those aware of this can try to modulate their tone in response.
Talking rapidly can be a ‘six of one, half a dozen of another’ characteristic. Many have a perception of fast talkers as displaying charisma, in the sense of feeling there is a connection ‘between speed and fluency’. On the other hand, talking too quickly can come across as nervousness which makes it difficult for listeners to get the whole message. Those with this tendency would be well-served to slow down especially during important addresses. Situations can also help the speaker more proactively alter speech speed, such as in talking with a child.
Like it or not, perceptions about others’ accents is quite subjective. Someone in one culture will hear foreign accents as more intelligent than if from another culture. Those with familiar region accents are often viewed as more approachable. Accent familiarity tends to correlate with being perceived as knowledgeable and trustworthy.
There is an inherent bias to favouring those in one’s own group, as impacted by accent. As one becomes an adult, interactions can arise where such a bias can cause problems, such as in interviews or public encounters. According to research, having a confident tone can help offset the inclinations of bias.
A picture may be worth a thousand words – but if those words are verbalized, fillers and unintended perceptions may challenge the idea that the picture is seen completely.