Do You Have a Speaking Tic?

Some people say “like” and “you know,” so often that you want to strangle them. Others say “um” often and enthusiastically. Some people swallow nervously and spasmodically. Some people let their voice swing up in pitch at the end of every sentence as if they were always asking questions. For some, it’s happy feet – wandering around the stage as if they really loved walking and couldn’t wait to get off the platform.

I’ve seen a thousand tics over my years as a speech coach, and I’ve had a thousand people come up to me and point out someone else’s tic, usually in whispered tones, along with, “Can’t you fix them?”

Here’s the thing about tics. Of course, we’re better off without them, but they’re not really a problem unless an audience notices them, and they get in the way of comprehension.

Then we do have a problem, Houston. And it’s time to get out the taser and fix it. A few shocks later, and your tic is gone.

Just kidding. There are several relatively painless ways to fix a tic. My favorite is to get someone, a friend, to count the tics over some specified period of time, like a speech, and then charge the offender an agreed-upon sum for each offense. Usually a dollar is enough to get the malefactor’s attention. And you’d be astonished how quickly the tic goes away after you’ve had to pay up a couple of times.

Another method is to video the speaker and point out the tics. That’s usually enough for the speaker to want to stop, and wanting to stop is usually enough to allow them to do so.

If you’re one of those people who says ‘like’ or ‘you know’ or ‘um’ and you’re aware of it, then self-monitoring may be the simplest way to fix the problem. Notice yourself in a relatively low-stress situation – say, a conversation – and just stop talking when the urge to um comes over you. Don’t stop forever, just long enough to let a little pause in your conversation flow rather than the tic. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you can train yourself to do without the likes or you knows or ums. They just go away.

So let’s all calm down about tics and start quietly eliminating them on our own. I’ll have less to do as a coach, but that’s OK.


  1. JenM says

    Recording yourself is invaluable. I recorded myself several times while preparing my talk. I found that listening helped me recognize areas of content that needed correction.

    Listening to the recording of my actual presentation, I was surprised to hear frequent deep sighs. And my planned pauses were not as long as I had imagined them to be.

    I also found myself apologizing to the audience. I apologized when I took a sip of water. I apologized when words came out in a different order than I wanted. It was a quick and easy fix that I should have just rolled with, rather than bring attention to a problem nobody was aware of but me.

    Knowing these things will help me next time.

    • Nick MorganNick Morgan says

      Thanks, Jen — what valuable insights to gain about your performance. Those sighs are your body trying to catch a breath — adrenaline causes us to breathe shallowly, and every now and then the body says, “Hey, get me some air!” So consciously breathing deeply and slowly before you start to speak will help (and continuing to breathe throughout).

  2. says

    “Like” is the one word that drives me crazy, although ahhs and umms are not far behind.
    Yes, counter the number of times they say it is a great way to bring attention to it and I’ve seen tics practically eliminated from people’s speech with this method.

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