There are habits among those who talk publicly for a living. Teachers, preachers, motivational speakers, politicians, used car salesmen, television personalities. It is most apparent in novice speakers - those who lack experience. But do not fool yourself, anyone who gets paid to stand in front of an audience and deliver words of any variety does this. Whether they are speaking from the heart, a teleprompter, or prepared curriculum, they all have habits.
I call them crutch words. Is there an official term for this custom? Probably. But I like the mental image of someone being propped up by vocabulary.
Crutch words are words or phrases repeated over and over again by anyone giving a verbal presentation with enough frequency to become a pattern. Most of the time the speaker is unaware of the usage of their specific crutch words. Once cognizant of their quirks, experienced speakers make mindful effort to avoid their crutch. Either that, or they use it intentionally - at which point it becomes a catchphrase.
Public speaking is not something I crave, but it is something I enjoy. From the speech and communications classes in high school that everyone else seemed to hate, to my time in school and community theater, to my brief participation in Toastmasters - glossophobia is a foreign concept to me. And for a brief stint in my professional career, I was a corporate trainer. For nearly four and a half years, I stood in a classroom and taught people how to do their jobs. It is in this environment that I first learned of crutch words, mostly because I suffered them.
Mine was the phrase, "All right, so ... " I would say it any time we would start talking about something new. I would say it at the beginning of the day, after returning from breaks, and after lunch. I would say it after awkward silences. I would say it when wrapping up one topic and moving on to the next. I said it so much without realizing it until one class noticed my repetition. They caught on and (as respectfully as possible) teased me for my habit. One employee took a tally and provided me a count of how many times I said it during the day. Some would giggle with each utterance of the phrase. They predicted my pattern and started saying it with me.
This is the place I began to break the habit. Although, I am sure that another crutch replaced the old one I conquered. Those kinds of things happen.
Graciously, I know I am not alone. This past week, I spent some time in one of our classes speaking with a trainer. It was early in the morning and her class had not yet started. When I left, she welcomed her group to the start of their day. As I walked away, she said to them "All right, so ... "
Then as I walked by another classroom, I heard the trainer in that room greet her class with the same phrase: "All right, so ... "
Smiled bigger. I could not help it.
I wonder though if this is something more universal than only those whose job is talking.
Is this an issue for writers? A while back I recognized an over-use of the word "just" and have since made conscious attempts to avoid continued usage. I have read articles over the past few months encouraging writers to discontinue particular words in order to be taken seriously; words like "that." Then there are writers who use certain terms and phrases to the point that it is both sad and comical. (Am I right Stephenie Meyer?)
What about outside professional environments? Do we have crutches in our casual conversations?
How many times have you greeted an acquaintance only to be asked, "How are you doing?" Your most common answer, "Fine." Even when you are not fine. How many times have you met someone new and the first question you asked them was, "What do you do for a living?"
What about in more intimate relationships? Do we have crutches with our friends and families?
How many times have you stolen a glance at your phone when feeling nervous or awkward? How frequently have you changed the topic to evade answering an uncomfortable question? Do you anticipate what your friend, spouse, offspring is going to say and have a quick response prepared before they can finish their sentence?
Can you imagine how much better we could communicate with those close to us if we could improve our vocabulary - if we were more aware of our crutches? Speakers have crutch words, but the malady is not their exclusive property. We all have them.