Um, Uh, Like, Ya Know . . . Eliminating Filler Words from Media Interviews

Do you use filler words?

You are not alone. Many of us are unaware how often we use filler words. Now US Ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy’s Senate campaign ran aground after her infamous New York Times interview in 2008 in which she uttered “you know” over 140 times over the course of the interview.

Most of us are guilty of overusing filler words in our daily speech. When giving an interview, it can sink your credibility or at least put it into question. At the very least, filler words can distract your audience, impeding your attempts at getting your message across.

For women, it goes a step further with inflection at the end of a sentence as if constantly questioning your own statements.

But “um” and “uh” no more, here are several tips for banishing filler words from your media interviews.

Tape yourself either on film or on audio. Ask a friend or colleague to conduct a mock interview on tape prior to your media interview. It can be painful but it can also be extremely helpful in determining how much or how little you use filler words.

Prepare talking points. Make sure talking points are prepared prior to your interview. Review them and rewrite them to reflect your speech patterns and personality. Become comfortable with them prior to the interview and have them within reach during the interview.

Practice interviewing. Ask a colleague to conduct the interview with you. Ask them to monitor for filler words – how often you use them, and under which circumstances. For example, before a sentence, after a sentence or to fill in airtime while you think of a response.

Use alternate phrases. If you are still struggling, look for alternate replacements. Instead of “um” or “uh”, which are often used to buy time, use a statement such as “that’s a good question” or “that is an interesting observation”. Pause after that phrase if you need more time to think.

Slow down your responses. Most of us speak at a rapid pace and are quick to respond to questions, even thinking of the answer before the interviewer has finished asking the question. Slow down, breathe, and take your time answering. A great trick a speech coach once gave me was to place my thumb under my chin with my index finger over my mouth. It accomplished two things – it got me to shut up and it made me look like a keen listener. After using this technique for a while, I became a good listener.

Put yourself in your audience’s shoes. I try to use this with every media interview and speaking engagement. Put yourself in your audience’s shoe – not your shoes – and think of what they want to hear, how they want to hear it and what will intrigue them the most about your topic.

“Wait, I have a great idea for a video!”

On Location

As a communications professional, I am fairly confident you are asked at least once or twice a week for your thoughts about a great video concept from a fellow colleague – their eyes widening as they go into great detail, with great excitement, on the next Oscar-winning short they envision. It’s often framed as the solution to all of the communications problems facing that division, your company or your division.

Whether it’s the unrelenting access to the medium or that childhood desire to be an actor or actress that creates so many unknown directors with video concepts dancing in their heads, it can be quite a challenge to direct this enthusiasm and passion into a workable product for them and for you so that all involved feel like they’ve achieved success.

Added to that challenge is the standard follow-up comment as you leave the discussion “make it viral”.

Before you start assembling that flash mob, here a few tips for creating effective videos that engage your audience and fit in with your overall communications strategy:

Ask why. Before you begin concepting your video, you need to know two things: the ultimate goal of the video and who your audience is. It sounds basic, but most skip this step in the rush to be creative.

Is this the right medium? Is a corporate-generated video the right medium to meet your goal and reach your audience? Consider user-generated content through Instagram and Vine contests or “man on the street” interviews at conferences by audience members. Think of where your audience interacts and target that medium.

Does it support your communications strategy? Revisit your objectives for the year and whether this video lines up with those objectives. If not, make a course correction or rethink the goal and audience reach so that it does meet those objectives.

Select your team. This is the most important part of the process. When seeking out a videographer, be sure to ask for a portfolio to ensure their style and technical ability match the style you are seeking. Also ask for references.

Start with a pen and pad of paper. Write down the story you want to tell. It does not have to be a full script but a story outline with a beginning, middle and end.

Create your storyboard. Have an idea of your shots, and sequence of shots before shooting. A storyboard is an online, artistic rendition of each shot, in sequence. Adjustments will be made on location but storyboarding is a necessary planning step to ensure your vision is understood and actualized by the production team.

Include a call to action. A call to action is the ultimate action you want your target audience to take as a result of engaging with your video. For example, do you want them to share the video and/or visit your website? Make that explicit at the end of the video.

Remember SEO. Include a transcript of your video where you embed it. Search engines will pick it up and it will improve your overall SEO. And don’t forget a title, description and keywords.

Last but not least, think long and hard about your distribution strategy. How are you going to release the video to your target audience? Via press release, opening an event/conference, an online launch on web and social media platforms? Have this planned out before you begin to ensure your video has a chance of being seen and being shared, giving it the opportunity to go viral.

5 Lessons on Leadership

A year ago, I had the honor of sharing my lessons on leadership with students at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University’s campus in Talloires, France on beautiful Lake Annecy.

Today, I want to take the opportunity to share these lessons with you as we begin a new year. My hope is that they will resonate and prove helpful to you as leaders, and future leaders.

1. Organizations may say they want change but may resist when change is implemented. This is where vision comes in.

It is important to have a vision for your staff and to have one for the divisions you will lead – even if your organization as a whole is lacking one. You are modeling behavior and eventually your whole organization will latch on to an idea of a vision.

Without a picture – or destination – in mind it is hard to be motivational and to engage and energize those around you to actualize it. It will also help to keep everyone focused and somewhat sane through the trials and tribulations of change.

2. Listen and then develop a strategic plan (not the other way around). Communicate that plan to leadership as many times as possible.

If at all possible, buy yourself time to meet and engage other leaders and staff within an organization to assess the culture and the challenges. The challenges will be the tools for helping you devise a strategy that will be effective upon implementation. You must also research the history of strategic plans within an organization to find out what challenges, as a whole, the organization has been attempting to address and how the vision has evolved.

Lastly, communicate your strategy as many times as possible so that everyone understands why you are taking the approach you are. You may want to just get the work done, but it is vitally important that you stop and take the time to explain to key staff why A is happening before B and what the end result will look like and feel like.

3. Identify a champion who can help you navigate the changing relationships of power and who can defend your ideas at the table.

In hindsight, I should have probably listed this as #1. I have seen many well-educated, talented and experienced professionals lose political capital or their jobs because they did not practice this third lesson. A champion is a colleague who has a seat either at the senior leadership team and/or has the trust of the CEO and other leaders. And you should consistently assess the power position of your champion as it will be dynamic, not static, while cultivating more champions.

4. Empower. Empower. Empower.

As many of you have found – and will find – you cannot do everything and do it all well. The demands on your time will be extreme and you will need to be flexible enough to move from leadership, to strategy to execution throughout the day – back and forth – and often within 30-minute increments. It is essential that you have enough confidence in yourself and humility to empower those who work for you and those who work around you.

By empowering others, you give them the ability to grow and develop and to contribute to the organization. Yes, they will make mistakes. But mistakes, to me, are good. I really do not think an individual can grow without making many.

5. Like it or not, as you move up the ladder, politics will have a larger role in your life. Don’t fear it – master it.

As you develop as leaders in your careers, you will deal more and more with internal and external politics.

In a survey of leaders I know, all have mentioned they spend more time on management issues and politics than actually work in the field to the point where they feel somewhat distant from the issues they are working to solve. I think this a real danger and I implore you to always stay connected, and remind others, of whom you are working for.

The goal is to master it, identify trends, and know who is and who is not your champion. Always keep your integrity and make decisions based on what is best for yourself and your team. Trust your gut.

Wishing you all much happiness, peace and success in 2014!

Managing the Self-Appointed Communications Expert

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room – those within your organization who unintentionally or intentionally try to undermine your work and the work of your division for their career enhancement. We have all experienced it. Few, if any of us, discuss it.

Today, I’d like to introduce you to the self-appointed communications expert. You may have met him or her or maybe you’ve not yet met. Eventually, you will.

My story begins with a well-intentioned colleague and former communications professional. In my first week I heard the following phrase that I would often hear repeated: “I am the communications expert”. This was repeated, loudly, at every opportunity. Now you and I can psychoanalyze away on the “whys” and “wherefore’s” of this behavior but I am no psychology expert.

The lesson here is to learn how to ensure your self-appointed expert does not derail the work of your department.

First, take whatever the expert says or does with a grain of salt. Do not let it get under your skin. Stay focused on your long-term strategy and on the work produced by your division.

Second, ensure your CEO understands what your vision, strategy and ideas are clearly and simply. The “expert” will use many different tactics, convincing the CEO that she or he can only trust the expert, sending emails to leadership providing communications advice that may be counter to your advice. This is where having champions will help you. Cultivate champions throughout the organization who are senior enough to have a voice at the table and can advocate against any such attempts at undermining you and your team. They will also be more aware of what is happening behind closed doors than you and can keep you informed.

Third, if you feel comfortable, take the “expert” to lunch and have a discussion with them on where you stand, why you came to the organization, what you hope to achieve. Let them know that you would like to work with them to help advance their goals within the organization and externally. There are two benefits with this approach – it will help improve your relationship and it will enable the “expert” to see what skills you and the team have. It may shine some light on their perceptions and provide you with some insight into that individual’s situation. As they say, keep your enemies close.

Fourth, if the CEO allows the “expert” to seize the conversation on communications and the strategy, it’s time to have the talk. Don’t become the scapegoat for the larger internal and leadership issues your organization may be facing. There could be trust issues, a long-standing business relationship that is being protected or other issues you are not aware of. At this point, it’s time to put all your cards on the table and be prepared to walk if that is the case. You deserve to be with an organization that respects your experience and talent.

No one wins in the battle of who is or is not the communications expert in your organization. You were hired for the role. It’s you. If you are not empowered to execute on your work, no one wins – not you, and definitely not the organization. Your job is to ensure that everyone internally and externally recognizes the work of your division and its role in enhancing the overall image and reputation of your organization’s brand.

Quick Tips:

Stay focused on your long-term strategy. Do not let the self-styled expert derail you mentally or emotionally.

Ensure that your CEO has a clear understanding of your long-term strategy and vision at all times.

Cultivate champions at the senior level. They can support your work and help minimize any negative impact from the “expert”.

Don’t become the scapegoat for an organization that is either toxic, mismanaged or crippling along with internal damage. Go where you and your talents are appreciated and fostered.

Always try to mentor those that are younger than you in their careers. Sometimes the recipient is open to it, sometimes they are not, but your job as a leader is to at least try. Never try to do the opposite – we cannot see the future and that younger colleague may end up being your boss one-day.

Filling the Void in the Absence of Strategy

I think all of us at least once in our careers have come across those large PowerPoint strategy decks with endless boxes, value chains, diagrams and explanations. And I would make an educated guess that many of us have read through entire 200-page strategies, sat back, scratched our heads, and thought, “is it me or is there really no strategy here?”

Has the art of strategy been lost? Does anyone really know where their organizational ship is heading?

And what do you do, as the communications lead, to ensure your communication’s strategy fits with the organization’s strategy, even if it is not clear or is either in transition?

I came across this situation with an organization I advised. After pouring over endless PowerPoint’s – current and past – I realized quite quickly that there really was no “there” there. I opted to create a strategy for the communications division using the organizational direction I received verbally from the CEO and leadership team to ensure it would fit with the current, perceived needs of the organization.

A gamble? Somewhat, but it is your job as the communications lead to take the pulse of the organization at any moment and to be able to ascertain what the needs will be in the future even for an organization in flux, reorganization, or just unsure of its future.

Phases like this are common and happen periodically throughout an organization’s lifespan. Your job is not to panic, but to remain calm and help the ship reach its destination safely without the crew threatening mutiny – or at least your crew from threatening mutiny.

Quick Tips:

Create a strategy for your communications division even in the absence of one for your organization. Deeply involve your staff in the formation of the strategy and ensure that your team meetings revolve around the objectives and goals outlined within. Staff thrives with direction and structure – provide that.

Involve leadership in the creation of your strategy. Meet individually with your leadership team and as a whole. Ensure there is buy-in for what you are proposing and that it ultimately defines success for your team.

Message your strategic goals. Repeat these goals to senior leadership and to your staff so that everyone is clear where you and your division are heading. Consistently remind them.

For more advice on creating a communications strategy during times of change, please visit: