Become an UM Fighter! How to Get Rid of Filler Words

Recently I worked with a wonderful group of professionals, each wanting to be a better speaker. Some wanted to feel more comfortable, to turn nervous anxiety into power. Some wanted to be able to speak more fluently, releasing themselves from relying on notes and slides. And some wanted to break bad habits; notably, the habit of using filler words. Ah, that is a tough one.

Why do we use filler words? And what can we do to reduce them from our speaking?

Cause 1: We use these fillers to fill the tiny gaps when we are thinking of what we want to say next. Our minds race so fast when we are speaking (and we speak much slower than we think) that there is often a disconnect. We forget where we were, or what our point was, because we are thinking so fast we are off to the next thought.

Solution: Try to keep your focus with what you are saying. Try to not think ahead so much. When you notice your mind racing ahead to the next thought, or what is on the next slide, gently bring it back to the present and the words you are saying in the moment.

Cause 2: We distract ourselves with perfectionism and criticism. When we make a mistake, we dwell on it. We beat ourselves up. We hear each and every little filler. And we distract ourselves with these thoughts, so we end up with…wait for it…more fillers. Dang!

Solution: Forgive and forget—right away! You may notice the mistake, but let that thought pass by. Keep your focus right where it belongs, on your content.

Cause 3: We are often thinking of the words we want to say, or the words we had planned to say, rather than the thought itself. It is frustrating when you can’t think of that perfect word you wanted to say, but your audience doesn’t know what you planned, only what they hear. Most times, a close-enough word is just as good as the perfect word.

Solution: Think of your message, not your words. Tell stories, use dialog, think in images rather than words. Shut off the internal word-finder and let the words flow. Use close-enough words. Don’t memorize a script. If you do get stuck looking for a word, allow a pause instead of filling it up. The gap is most likely not all that noticeable to the audience.

Cause 4: We very often use fillers before answering a question. While we are teeing up the answer we often use a prolonged “ummm” sound to indicate we are getting ready to answer. Other people will say “that’s a good question” to fill this gap.

Solution: Use a Neutral Bridge instead of the filler. Neutral Bridges include phrases like “the question in about” or “I understand your concern about X.” By using a Neutral Bridge you paraphrase the question, buy yourself time to think, and allow the audience to hear the question in your words.

Cause 5: We get distracted by technology. I remember the first webinar I ever gave. I was so distracted by the technology and by not seeing my audience that I almost froze. Well, I did freeze for a moment.

Solution: Have someone else with you to deal with technology issues as they arise. Practice a lot before this type of presentation, so that the technology becomes more familiar. Consider having a co-presenter until you get the hang of it. Also consider inviting people to sit in live on your session, so you have a real audience. (Or put some pictures of your audience near your computer, and talk to them.)

These are a few of the most common reasons you will hear fillers in your speaking. Will you ever get rid of every um and ah? Probably not. But if you can reduce the frequency and duration of the fillers, your message will be able to get through more successfully, and you will sound that much more polished. Good luck!

What have you done to reduce the fillers in your speaking?

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