2013 was a great year for "sort of" and "kind of" qualifiers. 2014 featured a surprise winner with "so" at the beginning of sentences. As we move toward the final weeks of 2015, the judging is complete and I am ready to call out the most annoying filler word of the year (based on the audio editing I do to clean up client webinar recordings).
This year the award goes to the word "again." As with our previous winners, there is nothing inherently evil about the word itself. It has meaning. It plays a useful role in communication. Nobody should be afraid to conscientiously apply it in their presentations.
As with all filler words, the problem arises from overuse without contextual relevance. I hear increasing numbers of speakers repeatedly saying "again" even though they are introducing a new point rather than repeating something they have said earlier. The reason is almost identical to my analysis of "so" from last year. The word acts as a connective crutch to signal that the presenter is still talking.
"Again" feels natural to presenters. If they have prepared correctly, they have spent a great deal of time thinking about the topic and figuring out what they want to say. Hopefully they have practiced the talk or they have given it in other venues. As they deliver each point, it is easy to feel as though the information is a little repetitive or redundant. "Again" is almost a way of excusing the fact that the information feels familiar.
This is why the word is insidious enough to win top honors for 2015. It is not merely distracting and annoying from sheer repetition (as with perennial favorites "uh, umm, and you know"). It subconsciously sabotages listener satisfaction with the content and with the speaker by signaling attendees that their time is being wasted. If you say "again" over and over, you introduce the sense that the information is just a repeat of something you have already said. And that is an invitation for your listeners to check out. "Oh, this is just the same thing again? All right, I'll pay attention later when something new comes along."
Is "again" a part of your vocal mannerisms? Don't be so quick to say no. None of us can hear our own filler words. If we noticed them, we wouldn't use them. The only way to find out whether your brain has filtered out recognition of an overused phrase is to enlist the help of a trusted friend, coworker, or professional coach. Ask them to listen to one of your presentations ignoring the content and focusing on your phrasing. And if they tell you they noticed a speech habit, don't get defensive. You will be certain they are wrong. They aren't.