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Uh, Um, So – Stop Using Filler Words

public speaking, speech
macor on Deposit Photos

One of the most common mistakes people make when communicating verbally is the use of filler words. “Uh,” “um,” “so,” “like” and “well” are just some examples of filler words, and their use does much more harm than good.  When used, they can harm our professional credibility and distract our audience from the message we’re trying to convey. And when overused, they can become a crutch that we lean on whenever we get nervous, distracted or lose our train of thought.

Not everyone is naturally comfortable with public speaking. According to experts, some 77% of people are estimated to have glossophobia or a fear of public speaking. It’s more than likely that a majority of the most widely-recognized public speakers have had to overcome their anxieties and the filler word crutches they leaned on. I want to cover the top three tips that my speaker training firm uses to help our clients overcome their use of filler words to boost their confidence in public speaking and verbal communication.

1. Break the Habit in Small Steps

Everyone has bad habits. Some of us bite our nails; others may chain-smoke cigarettes. The starting point of breaking bad habits is to commit yourself to break them. Easier said than done, right?

Rather than trying to eliminate your use of filler words right out of the gate, start smaller. If you catch yourself using filler words, even in regular informal conversations, allow yourself to pause. You will begin to train your mind-body connection. Once you can catch yourself with a pause after each filler word, the next step in breaking the habit is to either 1) backtrack and repeat the last few words or 2) continue your train of thought with the word(s) you meant to say originally.

Uncover the reason why you use filler words. Perhaps it’s because you’re a fast talker or get easily distracted. If the former, the reason is likely that filler words are simply what comes out when you slow down enough for your mind to catch up. If the latter, try replacing each filler word with a steady pause. Though it will feel awkward at first, a well-placed pause is always better than a haphazardly blurted filler word.

2. Record Yourself Practicing

We use filler words more frequently than we realize. This may be due to our conscious minds not even registering “umm,” “uh,” or “like” as actual words; they add no value to the message our voice is conveying.

One recommendation is to record yourself speaking, and this isn’t limited to professional or formal communication. Filming yourself during basic or informal conversations with coworkers, friends or family will help you hear what you sound like while communicating with other people. It can also help you quickly point out which filler words you lean on most commonly, as well as which parts of the conversation you tend to use them. If you use them to collect your thoughts, a pause works in the same way. And if you use them due to nervousness, pausing to take a deep breath works far better to calm yourself.

3. Seek Feedback by Practicing in a Professional Setting

This is similar to the second tip mentioned above but applies more directly to formal settings. Once you have successfully broken your habit of using filler words and identified which ones you lean on most (as well as when and why), you will have a clearer idea of how you can consciously manipulate your speaking behavior to improve your communication skills. If you can understand this behavior and learn to use it to your advantage, the last step in the process is to put your newly minted communication skills to the test by practicing them in a professional space.

If you have coworkers you can present to in an office setting, ask a handful of them for 15 to 30 minutes of their time to sit back and listen and provide you with feedback afterward. 

Remember that what you’re saying in this setting is nowhere near as important as how you say it. You are trying to eliminate your use of filler words and replace them with pauses. Whether you utilize the pause to collect your thoughts or calm your nerves, a well-placed and well-timed pause also helps build suspense, which allows the audience to absorb a key point. After you finish practicing, ask others how they felt about your rehearsal. Ideally, the more you practice the art of the pause, you’ll hear positive feedback on your communication. Keep practicing until you no longer actively think about pausing. The goal is to get to a place when a pause is your new normal.


Kerri Garbis is the Founder and CEO of Ovation and has trained hundreds of business professionals internationally throughout her career as a professional actress, entrepreneur and speaking coach. She is a Professional Speech Writer certified by the Professional Speechwriters Association, a Business Etiquette Expert, certified by The Emily Post Institute, and an Emotional Intelligence Expert, certified by The Hay Group. Her dedication to dynamic, user-tailored content has helped ensure that every Ovation consultant delivers the highest level of client-focused professional training. Visit www.getovation.com today to learn more.

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