Watch out, um, for those filler words!

17 April, 2017

Weeding out meaningless words from your speech makes you a more credible communicator

Do you find yourself using a lot of “um”, “uh”, “well”, “so”, “you know”, “er”, “I think” or “like” when you are presenting or speaking in a meeting?

The use of these “filler” words can get out of control if you are not conscious of them. These are meaningless and add no value—yet, our speech is often peppered with them.

Using fillers seems harmless—after all, it’s a widespread (and growing) trend around the world. In moderation, this is true: there’s no harm done with a well-timed “so” or the occasional “um”. But if you find yourself resorting to a filler word every few seconds, then you have a communication problem.

By making it more difficult for the listener to understand your meaning, filler words impede effective communication. Plus, they damage the credibility of the speaker. Every “um” is a signal that you are nervous and under-confident. Each “like” suggests that you lack the vocabulary to articulate your thoughts. Every “so” indicates that you are ill-prepared and struggling with your subject matter. In reality, it is possible that none of these things are true. You can be confident, hard-working, and well-prepared—and still have the habit of using fillers.

However, when it comes to speaking, perception plays a crucial role: if your listeners see you as unsure or incapable, that is going to undermine your effectiveness.

Like it or not, filler words can come across as negative.

So, my message this week focuses on how to stop using filler words and become a more effective communicator.

The filler words you use are likely related to your age-group and personality. Older people seem to favour “so”, millennials prefer “like”, thoughtful folks opt for “um”, and dramatic people love “I mean”. Regardless of which utterances you use, though, they chip away at the clarity of your communication. So, why do we use fillers at all?

Dr. Steven D. Cohen, a public speaking expert, explains that most adults have an overwhelming need to speak immediately when spoken to—because you have been conditioned from a very young age to instantly answer questions from parents and teachers. This pushes you to dive headlong into speech without considering what exactly you want to say, causing you to fumble and fill the gaps with nonsense words. Another reason is that you tend to breathe less and speak faster when the stakes are high, for instance, at an important meeting or when faced with a large crowd. In such circumstances, your words outpace your thoughts—then, while you wait for your brain to catch up, filler words allow you to fill the awkward silence. And eventually, the filler words become a crutch.

Here are some simple approaches to remove filler words from your speech. Not only will these help you come across as sure-footed and capable, but you will also communicate your message far more clearly.

1. Hear yourself

The first step to solving a problem is to acknowledge that you have one. Find out if and how you use filler words by recording yourself in conversation or presentation mode—then, listen to the recording. To hear ourselves speak is an inexplicably cringe-worthy experience for most of us, but power through it to get a better sense of your speech pattern: which fillers do you tend to fall back on? Where do usually insert them—before a sentence, or in the middle? How fast do you speak? Do certain situations make you overuse fillers? Just a couple of recordings will be enough to give you a good understanding of your problem areas, and you can then work on these.

2. Pause, then hit play

Many people tend to add a filler at the beginning of an idea—this is a way to buy time to think. There’s nothing wrong with taking a second or two to gather your thoughts, but instead of “um” or “soooooo”, why not just be silent? The pause is a powerful thing, yet most of us are terribly uncomfortable with it. You may feel that silence makes you look ill-prepared or incompetent—but this is the lingering legacy of your childhood conditioning to answer instantly. In reality, a pause simply makes your response appear thoughtful and considered, which is far better than using a meaningless filler that indicates nervousness. Also keep in mind that a pause that feels very long to you actually seems much shorter to the listener.

Next time you’re about to begin a presentation or someone asks you a question, don’t give in to the urge to start speaking right away. Instead, take a moment of silence to organise your thoughts before you say the first word—this simple tweak will transform your unsteady start into an impactful beginning. (Watch this short video on how pauses can bring more power to your communication.)

3. Switch to a lower gear

Filler words like to live in the gaps—when your words race ahead of your thoughts, and your brain is trying to catch up. This happens when you speak very fast, usually in situations where you are slightly nervous or extra-keen to make a good impression. For a more in-sync brain-to-speech relationship, you need to slow down. Doing so requires conscious effort: practice speaking in a more measured manner, with pauses and clear enunciation. This allows your thoughts and words to move at the same pace; hence, the need to fill “dead space” with fillers is eliminated. Taking your word-speed down a notch also helps people perceive you as a good leader, by the way. When people are asked to role-play as figures of authority, they invariably slow down their speech and adopt a more decisive way of speaking.

4. Steady your gaze

Experts explain that you are less likely to fall back on fillers when you make eye contact with your audience. As you speak, look at your audience—one at a time. Similar to your words, make your gaze steady and engaging, rather than hurried. If you are on a phone call, focus your attention on your notes instead of staring abstractly into the distance. This keeps your brain from drifting away and getting off track.

5. Turn to transitions

After expressing one idea and before moving on to the next, you may indulge in a long-drawn out “sooooo” or contemplative “yeahhh” to give yourself some time to collect your thoughts. Here, you can replace the filler with silence—or better yet, use a transitional phrase to bridge the space between the two ideas, while you take a few seconds to organise what you want to say next. Try something like “let’s move on to…” or “that’s one aspect, then there’s…”. Having a few such pre-planned and practiced phrases at hand will decrease your dependence on filler words. Plus, effective transitions make you a more fluent speaker.

6. Practice makes perfect

As any public speaking coach will tell you, rehearsing is imperative. It’s simply not enough to decide you won’t use filler words—you have to practice speaking until you get to a point where it becomes natural not to use them. To measure progress, record yourself or request a friend to keep a track of your filler words. Also, do you remember extempore speeches from your school and college days? That’s another great way to practice key skills such as thinking on your feet, planning an effective response within seconds, and speaking in a measured way. (Lists of extempore topics are easily available online. The topics don’t need to be connected to work—they can be about anything since the objective is to practice quick verbal responses and fluency.)

In case of an important meeting or conference, rehearse beforehand to build confidence—you can keep a track of where you tend to fall back on filler words and work on those areas before the big day. If you struggle with presentation, practice the whole thing from start to finish in front of a mirror. If Q&A sections give you trouble, request a trusted colleague to ask you difficult questions for practice.

As the inimitable Mark Twain put it, “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”

I look forward to your perspectives.


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