Brian Krogh

How to Stop Saying So, Um, Uh, Ah, Like . . . You Know, All that Stuff

Do you find yourself wishing you could stop using filler words? Ever tried to convince yourself that this is the presentation you will finally not say "um," only to die inside when five seconds in to your speech you utter your first, "ahhh?" 

As much as we may disparage them, it is important to note that filler words have a purpose. 

It is difficult to stand up and speak in a world where everyone is talking and no one has time to listen.  When we present, we feel this pressure and filler words give the speaker time to pause and think.  In those moments where we are not sure what to say next or are thinking on the fly filler words are a natural response to the uncertainty.  As Steven D. Cohen of Harvard University writes, filler words are us "thinking verbally." 

While these words serve a purpose, they also can be a distraction.  Too many filler words can give your listener the impression that you are underprepared or overly nervous. And, so while they serve a purpose reducing your usage of filler words is a good idea.

Here, are three things to remember as you work to curtail these pesky words.

Silence is Golden

Moments of purposeful pauses in a presentation are powerful.

As speakers we can avoid silence because we fear losing the audience's attention, but silence during a presentation is quite useful. Silence gives the audience time to process information and to anticipate your next statement.  Silence also gives you as the speaker time to think. Furthermore, a well timed pause before and after a sentence is a fantastic way to emphasize an important point.  As a speaker do not fear the silence, use it to your advantage.

Practice in Your Everyday Conversations

When it comes to filler words you will likely repeat on stage what you do in your day to day conversations.

In your daily conversations practice placing silence where you usually think out loud.  These settings are a great place to practice because the stakes are generally low.  If you leave too long of a pause in a conversation with a friend it is cause for laughter rather than embarrassment.  You can also ask friends and family to hold you accountable.  

This practice may seem awkward at first, but it will become natural.  When it is your turn to present, you will find yourself repeating on stage what you are already doing in your regular conversations.  

You Are in Good Company

Take a moment to relax and look around you.  Some incredible, eloquent speakers use filler words with regularity.  When speaking in press conferences and interviews Barak Obama often thinks verbally and yet he captivates audiences around the world.

So, while the quest to use filler words less frequently is a good idea, give yourself a bit of a break.  

Your college professor who told you had to stop saying "like" for anyone to take you seriously is not entirely correct.  

Ultimately, people will listen to you based on the thoughtfulness and eloquence of your ideas.  Yes, filler words can distract from those ideas, but they do not doom you to the realm of ineloquence.


Frequently Asked Questions

What are some effective strategies to become more aware of filler words while speaking?

To become more aware of filler words while speaking, effective strategies include recording yourself during conversations or speeches and then reviewing the recordings to identify patterns. You can also practice pausing intentionally instead of using filler words or enlist the help of a friend or colleague to gently signal when you use fillers during a conversation.

Are there cultural or linguistic differences in the prevalence of filler words?

Cultural and linguistic differences in the prevalence of filler words do exist. While the blog post focuses on English-speaking contexts, similar habits might vary in other languages or cultural settings. For example, some languages have specific words or sounds that serve as fillers, and certain cultures might have different attitudes towards pauses or silence in conversation.

How can I effectively break the habit of using filler words in spontaneous conversation?

Breaking the habit of using filler words in spontaneous conversation requires consistent practice. You can start by focusing on specific situations where you tend to use fillers more often, such as phone calls. Rehearsing answers to common questions can help build confidence and reduce the urge to fill pauses with unnecessary words. Additionally, seeking feedback from peers or mentors can provide valuable insights on areas to improve.

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