When students enter my public speaking courses, saying “um” is one of the biggest things they are worried about. They’ve come to believe that using filler words is one of the worst things you can do as a presenter. I have to work to convince them that are more important things to focus on and that a few filler words won’t ruin a presentation.
Studies show that filler words make up an average of 6 -10% of our everyday speech. So if we have a couple of filler words in our presentations, we may even appear more approachable and warm because it mimics the style of communication we are most used to, conversation. However, if we use them too often and they become distracting to the audience, it can reduce our credibility and make us appear unprepared or unintelligent, so let’s look at how to identify them and minimize them.
Filler words are sounds, words, or phrases that we insert into our speech patterns when we need time to think of what we will say next. Speech coach Andrew Dungan says filler words may actually be any of these three categories:
- Filler Sounds: um, ah, uh, etc.
- Filler Words: basically, actually, literally, etc.
- Filler Phrases: I think that, you know, etc.
Interestingly, filler words tend to be individual and specific. That means you have probably adopted one or two words or phrases, and you use those specific words or phrases whenever you are pausing to think. Also, your filler words of choice might differ from another speaker’s filler words. So the first step to minimizing your use of filler words is to identify which ones you typically use. Start by videoing or recording yourself speaking and then watch or listen to yourself speak. Take note of which filler words you are using so you can work to minimize them.
We’ve all heard speakers who use “um” or “like” nearly every other sentence. Once you notice the filler words, it’s like you can’t hear anything else. In fact, studies show that audience members often perceive poorly of a speaker who uses them in a professional setting. Filler words can become a barrier to communication, so we need to remove them as much as possible. Here are a few tactics you can use:
- First, get comfortable with pausing. Filler words are really our way of filling silence we aren’t comfortable with. In a society that clamors for attention and uses words like “dead air” to describe silence, we’ll have to overcome our ingrained and mistaken belief that silence is wrong. It’s not. In fact, it’s helpful for both you and your audience. And great speakers know that pauses have power. Work to trade your filler words for pauses.
- Try chunking information. Chunking is a concept that allows you to see words as groups of information with breaks in between the chunks. For example, the sentence I just used, divided into “chunks,” might look something like this: Chunking is a concept / / that allows you to see words as groups of information / / with breaks / / in between the chunks. Try reading that sentence aloud, allowing for brief pauses where / / appears.
- Finally, make sure to allow adequate vocal practice time before your presentation. Silently reading the words written on notes or on a screen isn’t the same as practicing your speech out loud. You need to verbalize your speech so you can see where the filler words might creep in (you might notice they are most frequent during times of transition). When you are practicing your presentation, gradually weed them out of your speech, removing more with each time you vocalize your message.
Saying “um” is not the worst thing you can do in a presentation, but it’s not something you want to make a habit of, either. Work to recognize and minimize your filler words so you don’t put up unnecessary communication barriers that distract the audience from your message.
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