Are Filler Words All That Bad?

I was once having a conversation with a superior. The subject of the conversation I have no recollection of. What stopped me in my tracts was that I was told that I had used the phrase “you know” 13 times. Whoa. Eye-opener. Did the important points I was making come across? Were my thoughts concise, clear, and strong? In that moment it didn’t really matter. All my superior heard was “you know”. By that time, I already had two degrees under my belt but it only took a 3 minute conversation to realize I needed to brush up on my public speaking.

I have always prided myself on my ability to write, to paint a picture with words, to extend the reach of my vocabulary to express my thoughts. But in that moment, I was quite speechless.

Personally, I don’t think filler words are all that bad. The use of the syllables “um” or “uh” indicates to me that someone is thinking about what they want to say next. In my error above, “you know” was a filler word that indicated that I was moving on to a new statement but it also showed that I was seeking confirmation or affirmation that whatever I was saying was correct.

I’m not the only person that has used filler words. Many of the great public speakers do. Check out our nation’s leader, considered one of the greatest public speakers of our time as A young Obama talks American Culture . In this short clip, you hear the future president use the filler word “um”. In the general scheme of things, that “um” didn’t negate the point that Obama was making. In most recent speeches by the POTUS, you often hear him repeat a word or emphasize a syllable as he transitions his thought. Obviously a seasoned speaker, one can only strive to have the poise, grace, and intelligence that our President is able to convey in speech.

An occassional “uh”, “I mean”, or “like” probably won’t make or break your career nor will it cheapen your public speaking stock; however, as with most things all in moderation and not to excess. There are a few simple points that can help you avoid using filler words and strengthen your message:

Listen – To be a great speaker, you must first listen. Understand what is being asked of you to cover in a speech, a meeting, or reply. Use some of the same phrases that those who are seasoned experts tend to use. This will confirm that you understand the point of others and will help you move from presenter to persuader, which is really the level we desire to be on. You don’t want to present to people, you want to persuade people to buy your product or buy-in to your idea or vision that you are so passionate about.

Be An Expert – No one should know more about your job, your field, your expertise than you do. The use of filler words often derives from needing a moment for your mouth to catch up with your mind as it scrambles for something to say. If you are the expert, the knowledge is already there and ready for your mind to craft the right thing to say. Stay ahead of your field, read articles, study your goals/results, and consult with other experts so that you are rarely hit with a question you don’t know the answer to.

Prepare – Sounds easy enough. Of course it makes sense to prepare for a long, drawn out speech. But are you preparing for that meeting you have every Friday like clockwork? Are you prepared for the weekly conference call with your peers? Are you adding anything valuable or are you just passing the time, nonchalantly flipping through emails or thinking about your next task to be completed. Then all of a sudden, your name is called to speak on a topic and you’re “um’ing” and “uh’ing” to get your way through a response when you’re not truly even sure you heard the question correctly. Always. Be. Prepared.

Practice – The biggest speeches or dissertations I have had to prepare were easy compared to the impromptu meetings or interview unknowns. In a speech, it is truly your words and frame of mind being presented to an audience. There is little deviation and in some instances the audience may even forgive you if you have written notes. However, you can’t just practice for speeches. You have to practice for the unknowns. When you are walking into a meeting, know your audience, know what they might ask, and prepare possible reactions to those questions. Know your own points that you want to get across and anticipate potential follow up questions. Practice how you defend what you will say.

If you are reading this blog and still aren’t confident about your skills as a presenter or have concerns regarding your use of filler words, there is still hope:

1. Spend some time in front of a mirror speaking about yourself and your field.

2. Invest in a handheld tape recorder or use the voice record feature on your smartphone.

3. Write down some topics that interest you or current event topics that you have reviewed. Pick up a topic one by one and challenge yourself to speak on that topic from one to five minutes.

4. Practice replacing filler words with transitional statements such as “with that being said”, “moving on to my next point”, etc.

5. Consult additional resources such as taking a public speaking course at a local university or community college.

I encourage you to take some of these tips and speak on with your bad self!

Let’s Keep Talking,