Kick Away The Crutches: Five Things to do to Prevent You From Sounding Like an Idiot.

Nobody wants to sound like an idiot. But unfortunately there are way too many times we try to prove the opposite. You can be the most knowledgeable, well-read authority on your particular subject, capable of writing dozens of books and mountains of blogs on the topic and receiving praise from fans and critics alike. But for some reason, when someone sticks a camera or microphone in front of your face the Three Musketeers of Stupid Speech trip over themselves to be the first out of your mouth: “umm,” “yeah” and “you know.”

Congratulations, your I.Q. just dropped fifty points.

Don’t feel bad, I’ve been speaking professionally for thirty years and it happens to me all the time. I’m always searching for words. Even though there are literally millions of them at the tip of the tongue, sometimes finding one, one that best sums up what you’re saying gets stuck somewhere between the taste buds and the leftovers of lunch. Frenetically searching your expansive vocabulary, mastered after years and years of literary study and hours of reading Reader’s Digest “Words for More Powerful Speech” while in the ‘loo, out comes the staple of lame speech: “ummmmm”


In broadcast terms, these are what we commonly refer to as ‘crutches,’ it’s really nothing more than a brain stall default: words, phrases, utterances anything your mouth says while your brain is formulating answers or looking for a starting point. Don’t feel bad it’s perfectly natural and we all do it to some degree. When we’re involved in everyday conversation, these crutches generally happen without notice (think of little potholes when you’re driving). But when it’s just you listening to the radio in the confines of your car or sitting in front of the TV, these crutches stick out like a sore thumb. More often than not, you don’t remember a bloody thing that was said beside “umm,” “like,” “yeah” and “you know.”

In my never-ending effort to make your clients media darlings, I humbly submit to you:

Five Things to do to Prevent You From Sounding Like an Idiot

(In no particular order):

1 – Rehearse: When your client steps up to a microphone, they usually know the subject matter they’re going to be asked about. By rehearsing the answers to the most common questions, they become rote and automatic. Be careful not to say the same thing in the same way every time you’re asked; think consciously of different ways to say the same thing, have a list of key words and phrases and repeat them over and over and over. Rehearsing under real-life circumstances (with a microphone or camera in your face) will relieve the intimidation and nervousness, bolstering your client’s confidence and comfort level as well. (BTW: There is a fine line between ‘well-rehearsed’ and ‘over-rehearsed.’ For the love or God, please avoid the latter, it’s annoying)

2 – Pace: Pacing is probably the quickest, most-reliable way to cast away the crutches. Crutches come out in droves when we get excited, passionate or nervous. We start to talk faster and faster and that makes things ripe for verbal stumbling. As you are delivering information your mouth gets ahead of your brain. When your brain tries to catch up you hit a speed bump and as you hit that bump, you stumble, reach for a word and ‘you know’ comes out. (Another side effect of this rush is that when your speaking quickly, your audience can’t absorb as much information.)

Slow down, measure your tone and measure you thoughts. A friend of mine actually would rehearse his speeches with a metronome. When he would speak in public you’ll always see him tap out a rhythm with his foot to help him with pacing.

3 – Pause: The most common place for verbal crutches is at the beginning of an answer or between trains of thought. It’s really nothing more than your brain taking a beat to formulate the answer to the question or a transition in subject. It’s been beaten into our heads that silence = death, so there’s an involuntary crutch that slips out between question and answer, thought and thought.

The solution here is simple: pause and think. Wait a beat for your mind and your mouth to get in sync. It’ll feel like an eternity but in truth it’ll only be a second. The legendary radio commentator Paul Harvey once told me the secret to being a great communicator was to: “Learn the power of the pause.” Ronald Reagan in his prime was a master. This can be tricky; you don’t want to overdo it because you’ll appear clueless. Practice pacing and pausing, it’ll get easier, I swear.

4 – Watch (Listen) and Learn: It is the most painful thing for anyone to do but do it you must. The only way you’re going to catch these crutches and correct them is to go back and do some self-critique. Be aware that you will never get comfortable watching or listening to yourself…it’s ugly and it will make you crazy but it’s the only way you’ll improve.

5 – Give it Up: If you try all of these practices and you still sound like an idiot, turn over the public face of your client to someone else. If you are uncomfortable, everyone will know. A very successful, bright and articulate restrauteur I knew in Phoenix would turn to stone in front of a microphone. After some trial and error, we discovered that one of his line cooks was positively brilliant in front of a camera.

Remember, the audience doesn’t care what title your spokesperson carries, all they’re interested in is the information you are presenting.
Some media coaches will suggest to your clients that they find other words to substitute for “ummm,” “you know” and “like.” A great idea but, like ketchup on fries, too much of a good thing can ruin a meal.“Absolutely,” “Thanks for asking,” “Good question,” they all work but beware that they don’t turn in to crutches themselves.

While I’m here, may I request that you please quit using the following words and phrases:

“I can answer that.” No sh*t? That’s why I’m asking you.

“At the end of the day” is “night.” Period.

“Runnin,” “Askin,” “Thinkin,” any word ending in ‘ing. Stop dropping the ‘g’. It’s there for a reason. Even if you are a renegade maverick, when you do that you sound like an uneducated rube.

“Nook-ya-lur.” Only Jack Bauer and George W can get away with that. The word is “nuclear.”

[Good rule of thumb: If you’re not certain of the correct pronunciation or you know you’re going to stumble over a word, get rid of it. If you’d like to see an example of what not to do, I suggest you find the CNN clip where I tried unsuccessfully to say ‘promulgated.’ I hate that word]

“Yep,” “Yeah,” “Nope” etc. You sound like a teenager, stop it. However, if you insist on using these words, I insist you please be a heavy mouth-breather as well.

There is no ‘b’ in “supposedly.’ Quit putting one in there.

There is no such word as “irregardless.”

I could go on but I have exceeded my thousand word limit again. I hope you remember that there is a serious message beneath the sarcasm. I want you and your clients to be wildly successful. If I can be of any assistance to help you improve the interview skills of your clients, please feel free to contact me. I’ve worked with authors, athletes, CEO’s and politicians. I can help and I am CHEAP!

Good luck and Be Brilliant!


Skip Mahaffey in an award-winning broadcaster, Media Coach/Consultant and Author of Adventures With My Father: Childhood Recollections of Divorce, Dysfunction and the Summer of Love. Skip is available for consultation by calling 813-388-1035 or email:

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One Response to Kick Away The Crutches: Five Things to do to Prevent You From Sounding Like an Idiot.

  1. Kash says:


    I love these tips. It took me some time to find a style-and I still consider myself a student. Anybody looking for tips will benefit from Skip’s training. I know Skip and trust me you will be in great hands.

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