Filler words seem to have a timeless effect on speakers; each generation continues to struggle with limiting their use.
This is because our brain is wired to use filler words in an attempt to help us out of awkward, uncomfortable, or unconfident situations. So how do we break through this ongoing battle to replace filler words to become more engaging speakers? We’re here to help.
Let’s discuss the different types of filler words, what the drawbacks to their use are, why they happen, and strategies to limit their use.
Below are the most popular filler words. For a full list, check the bottom of the post and we'll include a more comprehensive list (although it too is incomplete).
Filler words sneak their way into our speech when we feel unprepared, nervous, or uncertain.
Think of the last casual conversation you had with a family member or friend in which you were comfortable and relaxed. Subconsciously, you likely used few filler words because they served you no purpose. When you’re comfortable with whom you’re speaking to and confident in what you’re speaking about, your words tend to flow more seamlessly without being broken up by unnecessary filler words.
On the contrary, imagine you’re speaking to a large audience of seemingly judgmental people who you don’t know, and you were just handed content to speak about that you weren’t prepared for. You’re not prepared, you don’t feel relaxed, you’re not confident in your knowledge of the subject, and you’re nervous about the reaction that you will get. The result will be lots of filler words. This happens for a couple of reasons.
First, your brain is uncomfortable with pauses in these situations. It sees the pause as a risk. Your brain is trying to avoid a scenario that allows someone else to interrupt you and take over the stage. When you’re not comfortable or confident, your natural response is to not allow anyone else to chime in, or else they may expose your flaws. So instead of pausing to formulate your thoughts, you use filler words to maintain control of the stage and avoid the risk of anyone correcting you.
Second, you're buying time to find the right words to say. In this case, your brain uses filler words to stall while you search for the right words. This is due to a lack of preparation or nervous reaction while speaking.
Questions can also invoke the use of filler words. When you don’t know how to answer a question, you tend to try and buy yourself some time.
Lastly, when you feel like you may be losing trust with the audience, you naturally try to answer right away (quickly) to prove your trust instead of taking a second to pause - because again this is seen as a risk to your brain.
Using a few filler words is probably not a problem. Some speakers even argue that using filler words makes them seem authentic and less robotic. The problem is when they are used too frequently.
Once the audience picks up on the filler words, it quickly becomes all they can focus on. This only happens when they are used repeatedly. You can likely relate and think of a speech where the speaker used “um” in nearly every sentence. It’s super distracting and the audience loses focus on the actual content of the speech.
Frequent use of filler words is not only distracting but also makes you appear less articulate and can damage your reputation. The audience loses trust in what you’re saying because they don’t think you’re prepared or have knowledge of the subject matter.
Not to mention that filler words delay the delivery of the speech. We’re all busy and don’t have time to sit around listening to people “um” and “ah” for 10 minutes. Speakers in all situations need to strive for delivering high value in small amounts of time.
Habits (especially those that are subconscious habits) can be difficult to stop. Nevertheless, it can be done. You can train your brain away from filler words using one or a few of these strategies.
At first, taking pauses is going to feel awkward and each second may feel like an hour. But short pauses for the audience feel completely normal. Practice taking short pauses to take a breath, relax, and form your thoughts on what to say next. Start small with 1-2 three-second pauses and build up from there.
If there’s a Q&A session, this is the best situation to practice pauses by forcing yourself to take 3 seconds to pause before answering each question. Remember that your brain is going to want to resort to speaking right away, so you need to be intentional with your pauses.
On average, we think at 400 words per minute but only speak at about 125 words per minute. This means we process thoughts over 3X faster than we can speak. We naturally try to keep up with our thoughts but this can be impossible given the rate at which we can think. This is a perfect storm for filler words.
To avoid using filler words as a vice to help us try and catch up with our thoughts, a better strategy is to use shorter sentences. If you prepare shorter sentences to speak on, you’ll be able to diminish the gap between your thoughts and your speech.
Sounds obvious. Many people believe they are prepared for a speech or conversation but haven't put in the work to be prepared. For instance, if you haven't practiced a speech out loud, are you really prepared? For significant presentations, find a place where you can practice the cadence, volume, and timing of the actual presentation. Even better yet, practice in the actual venue. If you do it enough, the filler words won't flow as easily because of your preparedness.
Perhaps the best strategy is to simply record yourself. This is the best way to figure out exactly what filler words you tend to use most, in what situations, and the potential reasoning for doing so. This will certainly feel awkward and is hard to find the time to implement it. But if you don’t hear yourself speak then you won’t be able to identify the necessary steps to change.
Hopefully the strategies and information above gave you some ideas on how to stop using filler words. Breaking these habits to set yourself apart is hard work. Although the strategies are straightforward, it won’t be easy to put them into practice. If you’re willing to put in the work, your ability as a speaker will greatly improve to better engage the audience, protect your reputation, earn trust, and deliver content that will be remembered.