Worries About Stumbling Over Your Words Or Being Inarticulate

Some people worry they'll stumble over their words or come across as inarticulate in their conversations, and be judged as nervous, awkward, or stupid because of it. I'll share my thoughts on getting past this fear.

To be clear I'm not covering how to deal with chronic stuttering or having trouble pronouncing specific sounds. I'm talking about everyday, occasional slip ups such as:

One obvious cause of this problem is anxiety. Sometimes it's because you're generally anxious about social situations. It's also possible to get caught in a vicious cycle where you're nervous about not being able to speak well, which makes you more likely to stumble over your words, which makes you even more worried next time.

Some people with this fear struggled in school when they were younger. As adults they have insecurities and mental baggage about being "dumb", and are extra self-conscious about how they come across in conversations. They think if they get tongue tied for a second everyone will suddenly realize how dim-witted they are. These people may be perfectly intelligent, but the images we form of ourselves in childhood based on a handful of negative experiences can be hard to shake, even when they're inaccurate.

What to do if you stumble over your words

Realize most people don't notice or care if you make minor verbal mistakes

People stumble over their words in small ways all the time. Often the listener's mind filters it out and they don't notice. If they do catch it, they usually don't care. The average person doesn't expect their friends and co-workers to be great orators.

As an experiment, listen to some casual conversations. You'll hear people make more small mistakes than you realized. I'll also guess you don't harshly judge them for saying "Umm..." more than they could or starting a sentence over. Just knowing no one requires you to be perfectly fluent and eloquent can take a lot of the pressure off.

On a related note, almost no one cares if you can use a big vocabulary during run of the mill conversations. If you want to use a longer word and it's not popping into your head, no one will mind if you use a simpler alternative. If anything, speaking as simply as you need to in order to get your ideas across is preferrable. Trying to sound sophisticated can come across as if you're pretentious or trying too hard.

If you trip over your words a bit, keep going as if nothing happened

Since people generally don't notice or care about minor verbal stumbles, the best thing to do is keep speaking as if everything is fine. You can actually draw more attention to yourself if you stop and try to explain your stumbles than if you ignore them.

If you do address your verbal flub, do it in a quick, joking manner, then move on

Sometimes you'll get tripped up over your words in a more obvious way, and here you can say something. But be quick. Acknowledge it, laugh it off, then keep speaking. For example you could quickly say, "Blagh! I can't talk", or shake your head to yourself, then continue with your sentence where you left off. Like with many small social errors, if you're comfortable with your stumble and act as if it's no big deal, other people will pick up on that energy and go along with it. If you're stumbling often over the course of a longer conversation, don't keep bringing it up, even if you're commenting on it in the "right" way. Carry on as though you're speaking fluently.

Try purposely stumbling or making similar mistakes

If you want to do this, it can help you take charge of your worry, and experience firsthand that small stumbles are no big deal. Rather than living in fear that you'll talk in a slightly bumbling, incoherent way, do it on purpose and see that no one cares. Go to a store and ask a clerk a question, with a bunch of 'likes' thrown in. Talk to a colleague and pretend to have a brain fart in the middle of a sentence. Odds are no one will bat an eye.

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Preventing future stumbles

I've made my case why you shouldn't stress over the occasional small stumble, but if you want to try to prevent them here are some things you can do:

Do what you can to lower your anxiety

Some verbal stumbles come from nerves. Anxiety scrambles your ability to think, sometimes just a little, at other times to the point of shutting your brain down. It can also change your breathing patterns and make your muscles more tense, which may interfere with your ability to get your words out.

Obviously reducing your anxiety can be easier said than done, and I can't cover every strategy in this short article. There's a whole section of this site that goes into it though. Long-term you can get a handle on your nerves by getting more practice at the situations that scare you, and learning how to deal with the counterproductive thinking that fuels your fears (e.g., believing most people are judgmental and want to pick apart your pronunciation). Short term even taking some deep, slow belly breaths, and making a point to untense all your muscles, can take your nervousness down a notch or two.

Slow down your speech

You're more likely to trip over your words if you're rushing to get everything out. You can counteract this by consciously slowing down:

One reason people rush is they're nervous, and they're either deliberately talking quickly so they can get it over with, or have some overall jittery energy and don't realize it's making them speed up. Like I said, even taking a few slow, calming breaths and letting go of your muscle tension can make a difference.

You can also rush if you're in the kind of hectic group conversation where you know you're likely to get interrupted or talked over before long. When you get a chance to speak you try to spit your point out as fast as possible. In these situations it can help if you have some skills for holding onto the spotlight, so you can take your time (though if the discussion is full of really eager interrupters, there's only so much you can do to prevent being cut off):

Don't try to pre-plan and memorize word for word the things you want to say

If you often get asked the same questions in your daily conversations it can be useful, and save you some mental energy, to have a prepared response (e.g., a little spiel about what you do for work). However, your reply should be a rough idea of what you want to cover, which you phrase slightly differently each time. If you try to memorize a canned answer word for word you can be more likely to stumble and get tongue tied. Rather than improvising, your brain goes into this regurgitation / performance mode, where if you get a couple of early words wrong you're likelier to get flustered and not be able to string together the rest of what you planned to say.

If you're really, really having trouble expressing yourself, consider seeing a speech language pathologist

Most small verbal stumbles are due to nerves and self-consciousness, but if you find that even after working on it you still struggle to speak as fluently as the next person, there might be something else going on. There are conditions that can make it more difficult for people to express themselves verbally. A speech therapist / speech language pathologist can help get to the bottom of that.