All of us, including public speakers and world leaders, have been guilty of using filler sounds, words or phrases. And while there’s nothing wrong with using fillers sparingly, if used excessively, they can undermine your credibility and confidence.
What are fillers, and why do we use them?
Fillers are meaningless sounds or pauses (such as um, uh, ah, hmm, uh huh and so on), words (such as well, like, so, basically, seriously, actually, supposedly, etc.) and phrases (including I think that, you know, I mean, you see and what I’m trying to say is) that fill out our sentences without adding any meaning to them.
Fillers can distract listeners from our message, and leave us looking unsure of what we are saying. According to one study published in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, “Even though ums do not seem to be a product of anxiety or lack of preparation … the average listener assumes that they are.”
Fillers are present in all languages. For instance, um, uh and so seem to be the fillers of choice in America; ehhh is the most common filler in Israel; and in Ireland, it’s em. Often, we use these words or phrases to signal when we’re pausing to think, but intend to continue talking.
Below are some of the most common reasons we use fillers or “sound bridges” between ideas in order to not lose our train of thought:
When we are looking for the right word. Here, the filler sound or word is the sound of our decision-making process. Using a filler allows us to show the audience that there is a delay in the flow of speech.
When we are talking about an abstract or tough topic. Experts believe that it is harder to express abstract ideas, and when speaking about complex, abstract topics, the number of filler words typically increases. Studies have shown that social science lectures contain more disfluencies (fillers) of one sort than hard science lectures, and humanities lectures contain the most — during lectures, professors of humanities use filler sounds 4.76 times per hundred words, whereas natural sciences professors use them 1.47 times per hundred words. In fact, overall, disfluency rates are higher both when speakers act as directors and when they discuss abstract figures, confirming that disfluencies are associated with an increase in planning difficulty.
When we are not confident about what we're about to say. Most speakers use fewer fillers if they are confident about what they're going to say. And when they are not 100 percent sure about their answer, they use more fillers before responding to a question.
When we use fillers as placeholders to indicate to the audience that we will continue speaking. Even though this is more common in conversations, people often use filler words or phrases to ensure that they are not interrupted. The fillers let their audience know that they are going to continue talking.
How to Stop Using Filler Words
Everyday social talk is expectedly disfluent, so using fillers every now and then is perfectly acceptable. And while you don’t have to eliminate the use of fillers completely, it’s a good idea to reduce their usage.
These tips can help you drop the most common fillers from your speech:
Step 1: Identify your biggest offenders: Awareness is the first step to overcoming the overuse of filler sounds, words and/or phrases. You can begin by taking notice of which ones you say most often and when. Becoming aware of your most-used fillers will help you identify your pattern of usage.
Alternately, you can try noticing other people’s speech patterns as well. This will help you become conscious of how often you start sentences with an unnecessary “well” during work presentations, or slip such words as “like” and “so” into daily conversations.
Step 2: Pinpoint the triggers: The next step is to determine what triggers your use of filler words. For instance, you may rock a presentation without a glitch thanks to all the practice and prep, but give in to disfluent speech patterns as soon as the Q&A session starts — because you cannot prepare your answers to spontaneous questions, you end up using disfluencies to compensate for pauses in thought or lapses in knowledge.
Knowing which situations worsen your reliance on verbal crutches is a good place to start in trying to quell this issue. This way you can head into, for example, a business meeting with some foresight, ready to catch yourself before such words as “well” and “so” sneak out.
Step 3: Record yourself on tape: Sometimes, we have no idea how often we use fillers — it’s like our minds don’t even register them as words. Therefore, in order to overcome your dependence on commonly-used crutch words, practice (and record) impromptu speeches during your free time. You can select any topic and ad lib it for, say, five to ten minutes, challenging yourself to abstain from using fillers.
Step 4: Get a friend to help: Ask someone you trust to keep track of how many times you use fillers, inside and outside your place of work. This will raise your awareness of how many times you are actually saying crutch words and can give you the chance to fix the issue.
Step 5: Slow down: Most people tend to talk quickly when they’re excited or nervous. However, if you can manage to slow down the speed of your speech delivery, you’ll be better able to identify and refrain from depending on verbal crutches much more easily.
Step 6: Try chunking: Communications expert Lisa B Marshall writes, “Research has shown that when you reduce your mental processing load, you are more likely to increase your fluency,” in an article on filler words. According to her, if you prefer to write what you are about to say, you must ensure that you never begin with a prepositional phrase, eliminate compound sentences, put most of your sentences in subject-predicate order and remove any words that you cannot say without hesitation.