Meaningless filler words and syllables make up more than 5% of our utterances according to Michael Erard, the author of “Um…Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean.”
Examples include “um,” “uh,” “er,” or a similar syllables, a repeated sound or word (such as “like”), a restarted sentence (a “let me start over” moment) or a repair (“What I meant to say”).
Verbal fillers tend to slip out when you are trying to collect your thoughts, offer a response, connect ideas, or think about the next thing you want to say, which pretty much sums up most conversations. They become problematic when distract from your overall message or undermine your credibility.
Erard theorizes all those “umms,” “uhhs” and other vocal breaks became more of a problem when devices for audio playback were invented. Before that, such repetitions or hesitations were not singled out as the downfall of great oratory. When communicators could hear their own voices and linguistic imperfections, they immediately attempted to eliminate them.
One of the times this vocal propensity can become a challenge is in a more formal setting, such as a public presentation or media interview. Media and presentation trainers often urge their clients to trim their verbal fat by eliminating all those extra un-words and utterances.
Instead, consider focusing not on the total elimination of verbal fillers, but rather techniques that will reduce their use. As with any diet, verbal or otherwise, moderation is key.
Here are a few reasons to adopt this moderate approach:
- Speakers who completely refrain from verbal fillers may appear overly polished and slick.
- An occasional “um” or “uh” is unlikely to distract an audience. Rather, some research suggests that audiences remember more from speakers who utter an occasional verbal filler.
- If you are constantly worried about the way you sound while presenting or giving a speech, it can prevent you from making a genuine connection with your audience.
How can spokespeople moderate the amount of filler words they use? First, you need to find out how often you fall back on them. Here’s a start:
- For a week, record snippets of yourself talking. Record no more than 10 minutes that reflect a variety of conversations. Then, listen to your patterns.
- Film yourself during your next presentation. Replay it to discover how many times (and where) those filler words appeared.
- If you have agreeable friends and family members, you might be able to convince them to track the times you used a filler word. (A warning: Erard notes that researchers tasked with similar efforts report finding it difficult to “unhear” the verbal fillers once they have engaged in such diligent study.)
Reducing verbal blather
Now that you know your habits, it’s time to work on corralling your impulses. Consider these alternatives:
- Pause. Verbal fillers often occur at the beginning of a response as you stall for time. You are giving your brain time to catch up and form the next thought. If you pause for a moment before answering, it will help you to better structure your answer.
During a presentation or speech, use your notes as touchstones. Pause, look down, see your next point, look up, and begin speaking again. This can buy you time to form a better answer, deliver it with greater confidence and eliminate verbal fillers.
Look purposeful with your pause. The key is to be deliberate and to “own” the pause in your body language. Don’t excessively ruffle or shuffle your notes. Be intentional in shifting your gaze, avoid darting your eyes.
- Transition. Swap out your “ums” for transitional phrases. For instance, if a question causes you to pause while conducting a Q&A session following your presentation, say, “I’d like a moment to think about that,” before moving to answer. If you still need additional time, you can still pause before you respond.
- Focus on the middle. Filler words can din their way into the middle of your message just as easily as the transitions. To practice, record yourself talking about an object, any object (your coffee machine, your favorite blanket, your car, etc.), for about 30 seconds. During that time, you are not allowed to use verbal pauses. Instead, you replace articulated pauses with silent ones. Do this several times until you are adept at substituting the silences.
- Prepare. Take time to rehearse your talk so that your brain know the game plan. As you review your material, identify places where you tend to stumble or hesitate. These are places where a short silent pause will help you to collect your thoughts before moving on to your next point.
Some sensible weeding
When the focus is only on eliminating verbal fillers, a speaker’s cognitive load can increase to the point where they have too much to think about. It can make them appear less dynamic, inspirational and passionate. When you work to reduce the filler, you create a leaner and more effective presentation without losing any of your personality or pluck in the process.
In other words, by thinking so hard about one problem, you can create another.
As Erard writes:
Once people become aware of them, speech disfluencies come to represent the weeds in the garden. Nails that hang us up. Bumps in the road.
In many cases, filler words are mere annoyances, temporary hindrances and minor setbacks that trip up PR pros from time to time. Just as most people don’t unduly fret over these inconveniences, speakers need not strive for “umm-less” perfection.