Communication continually comes up in employee surveys as a top area firms can improve and it’s often an area that leaders can improve individually, too. When we coach leaders in our leadership development programs and individual coaching programs, we often identify sneaky and unempowering verbal habits that, when addressed, can dramatically improve how others perceive your communication.

I’m sure you have your favorite list of irritating verbal habits and there are SO many to choose from.  That said, here are my top five to consider eliminating from your speech to help you be a more effective and impactful communicator:

  1. Eliminate filler or unnecessary words – we all use filler words at some time in our conversation. We use these fillers often when we’re thinking about what to say next and don’t want to be silent. But silence or a pause is okay in conversation and allows the other party time to process and think about the conversation, too.
    1. Um is probably the most common and used when we’re thinking about what we want to say next. We all are probably guilty of using it, or some variation, such as uh, ah, or mmmm. These filler sounds can portray a lack of confidence as we hesitate and fill the space instead of speaking slowly or pausing as we choose our next words.
    2. You know, or right are phrases we add at the end of sentences, usually to confirm understanding. When used excessively, they can annoy the listener. In other instances, they may not agree with your viewpoint and may not be sure how to convey that. Or they may feel like they need to argue or defend every point that you make that ends with right.
    3. Phrases such as to be honest or candidly leave the listener wondering if you’re not normally honest or candid and they should be eliminated.
    4. Two filler words that have recently emerged on the scene are actually and literally. I think they are used to emphasize what you’re saying, but are not necessary and like the others, leave the listener trying to figure out why you’re saying those big filler words instead of listening to your message.

To help kick your filler word habit, first identify which ones you’re guilty of (and you may need someone else to point them out for you!) and keep track of how often you use it and in what context you’re using it. This is a trick that Toastmasters International uses in their public speaking clubs around the world. Then you’ll start catching yourself when you say the filler words. And, don’t worry, you’ll likely pick up a new filler habit as you hear them (or catch them) from colleagues, in the media or at movies!

  1. Don’t overuse jargon or acronyms – each profession is filled with complex terms and acronyms unique to that profession, and it’s good to learn your client’s language to demonstrate your knowledge of their profession. However, if you overuse buzzwords in your profession, such as the many standards, regulations and forms CPAs reference, or assume that your audience is familiar with them, you risk losing them in your conversation.

If possible, understand what your audience’s knowledge level is before you enter a conversation with them. If this isn’t possible, check in and ask if they are familiar with a term you are planning to use (like introducing a new term when writing). Watch their body language and facial expressions, too, for confusion or wondering in the conversation. Many clients tell their favorite CPA that the thing they appreciate most about them is their ability to break down the complex, often intimidating accounting concepts into plain English – without being condescending.

  1. Reduce mouth noises – tongue clicking, lip-smacking, excessive throat-clearing or general pops or snaps can be very distractive to the listener in conversations. Dry mouth, stress and anxiety can all be causes that manifest in these noises. Over time, these verbal noises can become habit and can impair the quality of your message and, if really pronounced, can drive some listeners crazy.

The first step, as with all of these, is to notice which one is your vice. Then identify the trigger – if it’s physical or nerves or something else. For physical symptoms, chewing gum before a conversation or a presentation (not during!) and ensuring you have adequate water on hand (room temperature is ideal!) can act as quick fixes to help reduce these sounds. If it’s nerves, take deep breaths and pause during your communication. Don’t worry, in most cases, it may feel slow for you, but it doesn’t feel slow to your audience.

  1. Refrain from dismissive languagedismissive language can intentionally or unintentionally negate another’s statement in a conversation. From a blatant No, you’re wrong to a seemingly agreeable Yeah, yeah yeah (with a sweeping hand gesture) or jokes and sarcastic responses can leave your conversation companion feeling like their message isn’t heard or worse, was rendered invalid.

Instead, practice communicating from genuine interest and care and concern in what the other person is contributing to the conversation. Pay special attention to when you are tuning someone out or minimizing what the other person is saying. If you do disagree, use I language so that you take responsibility for your view of the situation versus dismissing or invalidating their view. “I see things differently,” for instance.  Doing so will provide a pathway to true collaboration in your communication.

  1. Avoid interrupting others – this one can be a tough one in our fast-paced lives! However, it is not conducive to effective communication because when you interrupt it’s perceived as also being dismissive, you miss valuable pieces of information the other speaker was sharing, and it conveys a message to the speaker that you think your thoughts are more important than theirs.

Become a better listener by practicing active listening techniques to help you stay engaged in the conversation and keep it moving forward. Start by looking at the speaker and when your mind wanders, come right back to the conversation. Ask questions, nod and smile, and confirm understanding during the conversation. If you don’t want to lose a thought, ask if you can share something so you don’t lose it (or write it down on a piece of paper) and affirm you’ll get right back to the topic at hand – and even state the topic so you both don’t forget where you left off.

Communicating is hard! And, it pays dividends when we focus on being better communicators no matter how good we think we may be. Which of these verbal communication habits are you most guilty of? What action can you take today to improve your communication that will translate into better communication in your firm?