Bernard O'Riordan, Media Trainer
Australian swimming champion Ian Thorpe might not be competing in the pool at the London Olympics, but he has certainly been making waves with British viewers who have become distracted by his language.
The five-time Olympic gold medallist, who has been hired as a talking head for the BBC’s Olympic coverage, has been under fire on Twitter and message boards in recent days for his habitual use of the word “Look” when responding to questions.
Even in print, his favourite buzzword is hard to miss.
It has been interpreted by many BBC viewers as pushy, arrogant and even aggressive, when in truth it's probably a verbal crutch he’s used since he first hit the media spotlight as a teenager.
Almost everyone uses some verbal filler when they talk, and that’s okay. Sometimes it’s a sign of nerves, or it might represent a micro-moment of panic as we think of what it is we want to say.
Those meaningless words or phrases that speckle our speech - "Aaah", "Errr" "Ummm", "You know" , "I think", "To be honest", and “Like I said” – are often just verbal crutches we use to buy ourselves time to think, particularly in a media interview.
These pause fillers - at the start of a response or imbedded in a response - become a real problem when they’re repetitive. That's because they irritate the viewer or listener, they detract from your message and they weaken your credibility by making you sound unsure or unprepared.
In Thorpe’s case, the word “Look” is probably jarring to the British ear because they're not used to it. As a result, it sounds like what he’s really saying is: “Weren’t you listening?”
On one message board, a BBC viewer in Cardiff wrote: “It makes him sound like a stern dad giving (a) pompous lecture.”
The Twitterverse has also been in overdrive with British viewers venting their frustration and poking fun at the swimming champion.
@riclockhard tweeted: "Ian Thorpe... New WR for the most amount of "Look"s in a tv appearance." @Paul_Cornell wrote: “The Ian Thorpe drinking game: take a drink every time he says 'look'.”
Here’s what others have had to say:
Thorpe might be an habitual "Look" user, but he’s not alone.
Even US President Barack Obama is known to use more than a few "Looks" in his everyday speech. In fact, Obama begins almost every unprepared sentence with "Look", so much so that it’s now one of his worst habits of speech.
So, how do you eliminate filler words from your speech?
The first thing you need to do is to be aware that you use certain words to fill silence. Here are a few general tips to consider.
Count the number of filler words you spit out and work on eliminating them.
Filler words can creep in when your mouth and brain aren’t moving at the same speed. It’s important to take the time to consider what it is you are going to say. You can't do that if you start talking before the questioner has finished speaking.
The places where you can identify yourself using meaningless filler, replace it with an intentional pause. This will also help you in controlling your rate of speech.
Use other phrases
If you arm yourself with some other simple phrases before a media interview you won’t sound so uncertain. You might say “That’s an interesting way of looking at it,” or “I haven’t thought about it like that before”. Even “Actually” sounds more informative that “Umm”.
Use your hands
When you engage emotionally with your topic, it becomes easier to emphasise points and avoid crutch words. Subtle hand gestures can give you more energy and help you to speak with more passion.
Don't beat yourself up
Make a mental note that it’s a bad habit you need to eliminate. You’ll get there with practice.