I’m sure you’ve heard them in speeches, presentations, and conversations: filler words, words like “um, ah, so, like”. Some people use them infrequently, but others seem to start or end almost every sentence with one. If you fall into the first category, don’t worry. It won’t distract from your message and is most likely to be perceived as being considerate. If, however, you use them repetitively, it may diminish your credibility as mentioned in the Forbes article “Four Ways to Stop Saying ‘Um’ And Other Filler Words.” And losing the attention, even worse, losing credibility, is definitely something we don’t want to happen, either in personal conversations or, especially, in a business setting.
The tricky part is that we don’t even know that we are using these words, we say them unconsciously. So how can we get rid of them if we don’t know?
As with all changes, the first step is awareness. Awareness of knowing if we use filler words and, if so, if we use them (too) often?
I learned about my “ahs” and “ums” after I had joined Toastmasters. Toastmasters is a place where one can … “practice public speaking skills, improve communication and build leadership skills.” I didn’t join because I wanted to get rid of the use of filler words (as I said, I wasn’t aware of using them either), but part of their program is, among other things, paying attention and eliminating them.
You don’t need to become a member of Toastmasters or any other organization. A family member or friend can help you find out as well. I recently told my husband that he has a “favorite” word and, like everybody else, he wasn’t aware of it. If asking someone makes you feel uncomfortable, use a recording device, record yourself and listen to the recording afterward, a suggestion made by Rezvani and Hedges, the authors of the Forbes article mentioned above.
Now that you know, you can do something about it, if needed.
Start by finding out when you tend to use filler words. Do you use them only in certain situations, or have they become a habit which you add at the beginning or end of a sentence?
In my Toastmasters club we noticed that many of us use filler words when we don’t know how to transition from one part of our speech to the next. Instead of being quiet and taking a moment to gather our thoughts, we sprinkle in a little filler word. If this sounds like you, you could pre-plan for such transitions with phrases like: “Let’s move on to…” or “Another important consideration is…” or “Let’s transition to talking about….,” a recommendation made by Hedges and Rezvani.
But being silent for a couple of seconds would work equally well, if not better. It’ll allow your counterpart or your audience to digest what you’ve said, especially if you talk or present something they are not familiar with.
Olivia Mitchell, a presentation trainer, recommends “chunking” your information. “Chunking is talking in short chunks of words with breaks in between the chunks.” Her reasoning is that instead of focusing on something you don’t want to do, you rather direct your thoughts to something you want to do. Also, by chunking you fall into a rhythm: burst of words – break – burst of words -break, and by doing so you eliminate your “um’s” or whichever other word you may use.
Preparation also plays a big role when it comes to giving a presentation, facing a difficult conversation, or preparing for an important meeting. Organizing our thoughts beforehand makes us less likely to ramble on and use filler words to bridge the gaps between thoughts.
As so often in life, many paths lead to Rome. So do methods or ways to eliminate bad habits or, as in our case, filler words. I learned to pay attention to filler words after I joined Toastmasters. Mitchell suggests chunking, quite a different approach.
If you also use filler words a little bit too often, try and find out which approach works best for you. If you know another way or method to get rid of these little buggers, share it in the comments below.
To fewer “ums” and “ahs” and to better communication. See you next time,