I’m not being literal because some speakers weary their audiences with more than word fillers (like, so, right, basically, literally, absolutely, actually).
Some fill their spaces with only sounds (mmm, hmmm, ah, uh, ay) while others fill the pauses with entire phrases (“Follow me?” “Are you with me?” “You know.” “What I’m getting at…” “To be very clear…” “In my opinion…”)
These add nothing but length. In fact, they detract. If they work their way into your speech patterns too often, people start focusing on the filler rather than your message.
As a speech coach, I hear this question from even some of the best speakers: “How can I break the habit of saying ______ [fill in their pet filler] when I speak?”
Here are my tips to stop this detracting speech habit:
Become Aware of Frequency and Impact.
I’ve had clients come off the stage, obviously disappointed in themselves, and whisper to me in the back of the room. “That was terrible. I kept catching myself say uh, uh, uh. And I was determined not to do that!” The odd thing: I hadn’t even noticed because I had been so enthralled in their content.
Almost all speakers will use the occasional filler. Your job is to get an accurate assessment of how often YOU use them. And the best way is to video record yourself. Count how many times exactly. Between every sentence? Every two or three sentences? Every minute? Only two or three in the entire 20-minute talk?
Next, assess your body language at the time of the word- or phrase-filler? Where were your eyes looking—at the floor? At the ceiling as if thinking? Were you pacing or shuffling papers as if looking for a prop, outline, or note? If so, this body language suggests that you’re using fillers to buy thinking time.
On the other hand, filler phrases such as “Are you with me?” or “You know?” followed by a long pause suggest that you lack confidence and are waiting for audience feedback before moving along.
This self-awareness regarding frequency and body language (and the impact of both to the audience) will determine which of the following tips will best help you eliminate these fillers.
Understand That Total Extinction Is Quite Unnatural.
Even the very best professional speakers use the occasional filler phrase or word—intentionally. Total perfection, without a stammer anywhere, becomes boring. Your speech should sound conversational, not memorized and stilted.
Pause to Gain Control.
When people are nervous, they speak more rapidly. Literally, their brain simply can’t keep up. You have the feeling of being trapped in a run-away vehicle when the brakes don’t work. Slowing your speaking rate will give you much more control of the words coming out of your mouth. Again, to go back to the metaphor, as you slow your speech, you’ll have the sense of being in full control of your vehicle, traveling at the speed limit, with working brakes.
Become Thoroughly Familiar With Your Content.
Invariably, when I work on this word-filler problem with a coaching client and give feedback that they seem to be looking off into space when using these fillers, they comment, “Yes, I wasn’t too familiar with my content, and Joe switched my slides around at the last minute.” Or “I didn’t have much time to prepare. I delivered this presentation a month ago and haven’t looked at it since.”
It shows. The lack of preparation is proportional to the number of fillers for thinking. As the presenter grows more familiar with their content, the word-fillers disappear.
Add the Pause Rather Than Eliminate the Filler.
It’s often difficult to stop a bad habit if you’re focusing on it. Psychologists tell us that’s why so many kids end up with their parents’ bad habits: They grow up thinking, “I don’t want to have that bad temper like my dad.” They focus on that habit, listening to it day in and day out, thinking about when it happens, how it happens, how it sounds, and how it embarrasses the family. And guess what? Those children grow up with an explosive temper.
So don’t focus on extinguishing the filler; instead, practice adding the pause. When you need to think, just stop. Be silent. Pause. Then resume with the next thought.
Take your pick of fixes to slay this dragon. It can be done.