What are filler words?
Fillers words are words that are used as a verbal bridge to the next word. There are many different filler words, familiar ones such as “um”, “uh”, “you know”, and “like” and less noticeable ones such as “just”, “very”, “really”, and “mostly”. For most speakers, fillers serve as vocalized pauses, sounds that fill what may feel like an awkward silence while the speaker finds a word, gathers thoughts, or processes impressions he/she is gathering from the audience’s reactions.
Why eliminate filler words?
Pauses are good for audiences—they give them time to digest what you’ve just said—and they’re good for you, too, as they give you time to think of what to say next. Fillers cheat you out of these good things. Some audiences, too, interpret these filler words as verbal expressions of your anxiety or lack of confidence; using them often may diminish your authority or credibility.
Also, the repeated use of any sound or gesture may cause audiences to lose focus on your topic and start listening for when it next appears. Ever spend time with someone who constantly cracks his knuckles, or clears his throat? It can start to grate on audiences if you say “you know” or “like” over and over again.
How can I eliminate or reduce filler words?
There are several approaches commonly used to remove or reduce filler words from your speech. Try a few to see which helps you the best.
- Listen for your filler words as you speak. Becoming aware is the first step. When you hear yourself use one, don’t panic or get self-critical; instead, celebrate your new-found self-awareness and progress towards filler-free speech. Then, instead of continuing to talk, use the filler as a cue to pause. As I noted above, most fillers are vocalized pauses, so why not use a real pause instead? Pauses are great for presentations. They give you time to check in with your audience to see how well they’re tracking with your ideas. They also give audiences time to take in what you’ve just told them. That’s a win-win. As you get accustomed to hearing your own filler words, you’ll see patterns that suggest places you naturally want to pause.
- Consider chunking—talking in short chunks of words with breaks in between the chunks. When you chunk you get into a rhythm: burst of words/break/burst of words/break … Focus on that rhythm and your “um’s” are likely to go away.
- When a speech lacks dynamics—changes in tempo and volume—speakers tend to use filler words more often. Experiment with using dynamics for emphasis. Vary your phrasing—how long you speak before taking a breath—to make it more interesting to those hearing you. Try using shorter phrases; avoid linking them with ‘and’. Everyone has an underlying music to his or her speech. You can’t use filler words when your speech taps into the underlying music.
- Another tip: try recording yourself speaking for 60 seconds. Then, listen carefully during playback to become aware of when and how you use filler words. List three things you like about your speech and three things you don’t like about your speech. Now, repeat making and listening to this 60-second tape recording several times, until you become more comfortable with your own voice. Most people, as they become more accustomed to how their voices actually sound, naturally begin using fewer fillers.
- A similar approach, without audio recording, is to speak for 1-2 minutes about something you know, like what you did today or what you do for a living. Every time you hear yourself using a filler word, STOP. Breathe, and repeat that sentence. With more practice, you will get through the entire 2 minutes without using any filler words.
- Enlist colleagues or friends to be your audience. Give them a small bell (like the ones on hotel desks, available at most office supply stores). Have them ring the bell each time you use a filler word. You’ll become more aware of your fillers. Want to up the ante? Bet them $10 you can speak for 1 minute without using a filler word.
Another way to remove filler words is to become more comfortable with your appearance and the way you present. The more comfortable you are, the less anxious you will be about presenting and this will soon help to remove filler words. To build comfort with your appearance, it’s often useful to videotape yourself when you are presenting. This will help you to notice when you are using filler words, and it will help you notice the way in which you present and engage the audience.