Ridding Your Vocabulary of...um...Filler Words

Filler words, such as “um,” “uh,” “so,” “and,” “like,” and “right,” are fairly common in everyday speech. We use them to avoid silence when we’re thinking about what to say next, or to indicate that we’d like to jump into the conversation. While it may be natural to use filler words in everyday conversation, they certainly don’t belong in professional presentations, and they can make you seem less credible in one-on-one conversations. Often, filler words distract listeners from your message and will make your audience wonder whether you really know what you’re talking about. Whether you’re standing in front of the board to give a presentation or standing around the water cooler with coworkers, you should aim to keep filler words to a minimum.

The first step to cutting down on filler words is recognizing when you most commonly use them. Most people tend to put fillers at the beginning of a statement or in between ideas. Other times, filler words will come in the middle of long, complicated sentences. If possible, record yourself speaking and see if you find any patterns. Alternatively, you could ask a friend or coworker to take note of when you use filler words in your next conversation or meeting.

If you’re preparing for a presentation or speech, practice as much as possible beforehand. If you know your content well enough, you won’t ever have to think about what you’re going to say next. Try to get a handle on your nerves and let yourself relax a bit - if you’re anxious or nervous, you’re more likely to rely on filler words (revisit our blog posts about how meditation, exercise, and sex help you relax and perform better during presentations). You should also get in the habit of speaking in smaller sentences. While you may be inclined to write in long, flowing sentences, trying to speak in the same way can trip you up. Break your sentences up into meaningful phrases with pauses in between. For example, instead of saying, “I noticed A, B, and C,” try, “I noticed A.” “I noticed B.” “I noticed C.” It might seem stilted or unnatural while you’re writing out your thoughts, but you’ll find it’s a lot easier to get your ideas across this way.

In everyday conversation, the best way to cut down on the use of filler words is to pause and think before you speak. Have your idea fully formulated before you jump into a conversation or debate. While you might feel it necessary to respond to questions right away, you can take a moment to pause here, too. Many of us are used to responding to questions immediately when asked, but you’ll have a better formulated response if you take some time to think. This tactic also works for reducing filler words between ideas - pause and take a breath instead of saying “um.” On a similar note, you may find it helpful to slow down when you’re talking - allow your brain to catch up with your mouth! You’ll be less likely to get tongue-tied and your audience will understand you better as well.  

Once you make a commitment to reducing your use of filler words, you’ll probably notice them in your speech more readily. By taking the time to prepare for formal presentations and speeches and making it a practice to pause and think during conversation, you’ll find yourself relying on filler words much less often. Remember to breathe, break up your sentences, and slow down. You’ll come across as more confident, knowledgeable, and put-together.