How to eliminate filler words

by Olivia Mitchell

The odd filler word is OK.

Yes, really. There are a few hyper-sensitive people (usually Toastmasters or public speaking coaches :-) ) who notice filler words and cringe, but most normal people don’t notice. Or if they do notice, they don’t cringe. Just about everyone uses filler words occasionally. Mike Erard, who wrote a book called Um: Verbal blunders and what they mean reports that one out of 10 or 15 words that people utter is an um or other filler word. I love what  Steve Arrowood has to say about filler words:

Unless you are one of the masterful top 1% of verbally talented and trained public speakers, do not fret about fillers. Fillers are what bean counter minds like to tally mark about another speaker at a Toastmasters event. Ever heard of majoring in the minor? If you hone [sic] in on fillers as your main coaching point, you have no idea what you are doing. Stop It.

The rest of his post on this the topic of filler words is excellent reading – so do click through and read it (once you’ve finished reading this one!)

Sims Wyeth is a speech coach to senior executives. Here’s his view on “filler words“:

I hate speech coaches who don’t let you say “Um!”  I listen to a lot of speakers, and a few “Ums” don’t bother me.  They make the speaker seem normal and conversational.

Research has even shown that an occasional um can increase the audience’s memory for the word that comes after the um.

However, too many filler words do reduce the credibility of the speaker.

How to eliminate filler words

So, if you do really use too many filler words what should you do?

Conventional advice is ineffective

Conventional advice is to first become aware of your fillers:

Some experts like to suggest you put tiny “um” and “ah” stickers on your computer or cell phone to remind you to be listening.

I disagree. This will only make you cringe every time you um.

The second piece of conventional advice is to insert a pause and learn to enjoy the power of silence.

Good speakers enjoy their silence. They take patience between points to let them sit. And when lost allow themselves a few moments of silence to sort things out in their own mind. If you notice when a speaker is silent they draw in more power from the room, like a wave going out before it comes back in.

I agree that pausing and silence are immensely powerful. But silence is a vacuum. And by the time you think to yourself I must pause and be silent, you will have um’ed. Trying to insert a pause is not substantially different from trying to stop saying um. It’s difficult to do.

Focus on chunking

To be effective at stopping the habit you have to focus on something else – something positive that you can do, as an alternative to using a filler word. That alternative is chunking. Chunking is talking in short chunks of words with breaks in between the chunks. When you chunk you get into a rhythm: burst of words/break/burst of words/break….Focus on that rhythm and your um’s will go.

Pam Slim, author of the book and blog Escape from Cubicle Nation, naturally chunks. Note the lack of um’s:

Here’s the video that I showed in my You don’t have to slow down post of Tony Blair chunking:

Practice chunking

To begin with it will feel unnatural and uncomfortable. This is normal with  a technique that you haven’t tried before. It’s different from how you normally speak, so just like crossing your arms the opposite way to normal, it will feel weird. You will need to practice chunking before it becomes easy and feels natural to you.

Practice chunking in normal conversation and get comfortable with it, before you try it in a presentation or speech. Most people listening to you won’t notice you’re doing a “technique”. Though they may notice with surprise that you’re not um’ing!

Once you’re comfortable with it, use it in a presentation – and I’d love to know how it goes. Let me know in the comments section.

Note to presentation trainers and speech coaches: With this technique you don’t have to tell people that they use filler words – and have them go through the painful cringe everytime they do it. Just teach them chunking – then let them know that their um’s have gone.

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa Braithwaite May 26, 2009 at 9:24 am

Great post, Olivia, and thanks for standing up for the occasional “um.” I’m one of those coaches who “gives permission” to use fillers; I find they they become problems (noticeable to the audience) mostly when one is not properly prepared, so preparation is a big part of my coaching process.

I’m still working my way through the Erard book, and it’s fascinating!

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Olivia Mitchell May 26, 2009 at 9:40 am

Thanks Lisa, I agree that lack of preparation does tend to make them worse. I suspect that’s one of the reasons Obama was so bad in his answer on abortion at Saddleback Chruch (although why he hadn’t practiced an answer on that issue is beyond me). Olivia

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Jean Gogolin May 26, 2009 at 11:27 pm

Okay, point taken. But re Steve Arrowood’s comment, you don’t “hone” in on anything, you “home in,” as pigeons do. Honing is what you do to a knife to sharpen it.

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Olivia Mitchell May 27, 2009 at 9:48 am

Good point Jean – I will put a [sic] there. Olivia

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Steve Arrowood May 28, 2009 at 10:28 am

Hi Jean. Not to be overly grammaticalizing, but you can use “hone in” as a phrase when it does not have to do with cutlery. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hone+in

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Olivia Mitchell May 28, 2009 at 10:33 am

“Grammaticalizing” – now that’s an interesting word! Olivia

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Laura Bergells May 27, 2009 at 10:33 am

Shoot. Until a few years ago, I was not one to um or ahhh.

A few clients were actually weirded out by this. “Too much talky, too little reflecty.”

Ums and ahs signal that you’re thinking, it turns out.

So, my model for artificially umming and ahhing it is none other than Jon Stewart. I tried to mimic his pattern of ums and ahhs.

Ah, ah, ah. Um, um…

Great for Stewart. Dismal for me.

I have yet to find my pattern for umming it. I need to demonstrate that I’m thinking, but my umms are clearly artificial and awkward. And it’s rather off-putting to condescend.

If you’re a natural ummer and ahher, I admire you. You are genuine.

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Olivia Mitchell May 27, 2009 at 11:32 am

Hi Laura

Most people would be happy to have your “problem”. And I know you’re genuine :-) .

But onto the issue.

I think people do want to see that we’re thinking. Particularly in a one-on-one conversation, or when answering questions during a presentation. It shows that we respect the other person’s view or question. If you reply immediately people can take it to mean that it’s just a kneejerk response (even if it isn’t).

But I don’t think you should make yourself um to demonstrate this. Simple silence will do it.

Silence is simple but not necessarily easy if you have a lifelong habit of answering questions immediately. It takes discipline to change a habit.

But if you’ve been putting in ums on purpose (and have been successful at that!) then you can probably substitute silence.

Olivia

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Steve Arrowood May 28, 2009 at 6:35 am

If you listen fast, in the first second of the first video the interviewer/pastor says “OK, now, um…” He is a professional speaker in the sense that he is pastor. He has it tough because when he says “um”, he probably directly offends speech coaches and God. “How dare you weaken my position on abortion with non-purposeful fillers?! THOU SHALT NOT USE SOUNDS NOT IN WEBSTERS.”

My point is that chances are most people who watch that video with the filter of “listen to Obama’s ‘ums’” do not even hear the pastor’s. That’s because most people are not conditioned to hear them as they are not negatively affected when they do.

Regarding Laura Bergells great line about some of her clients being weirded out by the ‘perfect’ speech patterns of no “ums”…
This is something I also used to hear adult audiences say about me and speakers I have trained. Their point was important: “If you are meant to be in a conversation or natural with us, please don’t lose the ‘human’ in you.”

I just updated my blog with another language post on non-words. Thanks for the inspiration!

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Olivia Mitchell May 28, 2009 at 10:05 am
Chris Witt May 29, 2009 at 12:31 pm

Olivia,

If I’m bothered by a speaker’s ums and ers and ahs it’s usually because 1) he/she is overdoing it in a BIG way, or 2) I’m so bored by what he/she is saying that I start paying attention to inconsequential things.

As a speech coach I find that calling attention to people’s ums, etc., only makes them more self-conscious and nervous. Which in turn makes them use more ums, etc. My job is to increase their confidence and to make sure they’re saying something that they believe in and care about and that their audiences will care about.

I like what you say about chunking.

Chris

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Olivia Mitchell May 29, 2009 at 12:40 pm

I’m absolutely with you Chris, that when you draw attention to people’s um’s it just messes things up further. That’s why I like coaching them to use chunking – and then let them know “Oh BTW, you didn’t um that time.”

I also agree that working with them on what they’re saying and making that valuable and relevant is important.

Olivia

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Jon Thomas June 7, 2009 at 2:52 pm

Great advice! This is one of the toughest problems to tackle for the average presenter. It’s comforting to know that a few fillers here and there isn’t the end of the world. Getting past this may also empower presenters to focus on larger problems they may need to address.

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Jonty Pearce July 14, 2009 at 5:31 am

I don’t really see too much of an issue to Ums and Ahs in response to a question. It simply shows someone as getting time to give their thoughts on an issue, particularly on a sensitive topic.

The challenge comes during a presentation where it shows that you have not really rehearsed well enough about what you are intending to say.

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Olivia Mitchell July 15, 2009 at 6:44 am

Hi Jonty
You’ve made a useful distinction. I don’t think that all ums and ahs are a result of not thinking through what you want to say. Sometimes they are as a result of that person’s normal speech patterns. However, when they are a result of a person thinking through what they’re saying when they ought to have prepared, they are rather painful. Olivia

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John Turner November 21, 2009 at 9:29 am

Is “chunking” the same thing as the advice I offer, which is to head for full-stops in presentations (and meetings) rather than heading for commas and conjunctives?

“Assertive people generalize”, is a favourite phrase of mine when I encourage people to become more assertive. It requires regular full-stops, which are effectively invitations to an interlocutor to respond (whether in conversation or in a meeting, or in a large theatre)

I always thought Tony Blair’s enormous pauses between phrases happened because he wanted the interpreters to translate in his gaps, rather than over his next phrase. That way, he could guarantee his listeners could appreciate his tone all the more without the interference of an interpreter in the ear-piece.

That was until I heard him pause so long on a plosive “P” word (that is holding his lips in the “P” shape for effect) that he had to re-start the phrase. It went something like : “so, ou have to p…..you have to persuade through etc etc” That’s when I realised he’d had the benefit of either a good coach or an innate talent.

If you are presenting bad news (eg any investment company in the last year), you need to appear assured and in control. Pauses in those presentations are much much better than “er” words.

I’m totally with you when it comes to so-called “rules”. Of course an “er” is OK, just as much as hands in pockets can be OK in some circumstances. The only strict rule should be that one should ALWAYS be wary of people who lay down rules as imperatives.

For instance, I quote Mehrabian on my Blog and in my courses. So there :) I’m sure he would approve of my application, although you might not agree entirely with my thoughts. Let me know!

When you say “people do want to see that we’re thinking” I am reminded of every coach and theatre director I have ever admired.

Watching and hearing people think is at the heart of what we should be teaching; and it’s two way, applies to listener and speaker as well.

Your reference to the deliberate use of an “um” as in a suspensory pause kind of technique is entering dangerous territory. Are we really in the business of persuading people to use this sort of technique as a technique? I was once mesmerised by a deliberate “dry” by Max Wall and Trevor Peacock in a production of “Waiting for Godot”. After the interminable pause, the agitated looks between them, the hesitant delivery of the next lines, it was clear to the audience that something had gone wrong. It was electrifying. And I’m sure a deliberate manipulation by the two (highly expert) performers.

Used in the context of business presentataions, such maniplultion needs to be supported by a ratioinale that proves an ethically sound motive. Otherwise we face such hazards as the collapse of banking systems!

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Olivia Mitchell November 21, 2009 at 11:32 am

Hi John

You’ve made a number of interesting points. I’ll take them one by one.

1. Chunking is not exactly the same as “heading for the full stop” although I think that’s great advice. With chunking you might break each sentence into several phrases separated by pauses. Speaking in short sentences is best, but for those who struggle with that, chunking works well to allow the listeners to process a long sentence.

2. Agree with your point about rules. Like the way you’ve expressed it.

3. I don’t recommend that an “um” be used deliberately as a technique. Rather my view is that if you occasionally “um” as part of your normal conversational style it’s not a big deal.

Thanks John for your contribution to the discussion – look forward to more.

Olivia

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Pamela Slim April 27, 2012 at 4:07 am

Thanks so much for sharing my presentation!

I love the content chunk for many reasons, mostly to remember what I am going to say!

Recently I noticed that while I generally got rid of the “Um” problem, a pesky “Right?” prob has cropped up in its place. And every time, it was because I was afraid to just sit in silence for a sec and let the audience absorb what I said.

Keep up the great work!

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Terry Harrell April 12, 2013 at 9:58 am

I think it’s a bit silly assert one’s right to “um” and “ah” and imply that anyone who attemps to help you limit them is a “beancounter” (an offensive name, usually for an accountant). This is no more than name-calling. There’s no point in getting pugnacious about it. This is a trick of illogic that should be avoided. It assumes only extremes. Either those evaluating or assisting you are extremely fussy and never let you say a filler, or they say nothing about it. When giving a talk or speech, using a lot of fillers is very distracting, and can interfere a great deal with whatever message you are trying to get across. Limiting their use doesn’t turn people into automatons. It simply improves their speaking ability. And I disagree that being aware of them will not help. It helps a great deal. The point is to not make too big a deal of them so people become too self-conscious. Common sense will take care of it. Practice and experience will take care of bad speaking habits over time.

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Scott July 13, 2013 at 10:58 am

Olivia, it looks like you (and a lot of flight attendants) use the word “do” as a filler word. For example, look at the 1st paragraph on this web page. You said “or if they do notice…” Is that not a filler word? Try it without the word “do”. If it is not needed, i believe it is a filler word. It’s one that bugs me. Especially flight attendants.
Thanks
Scott

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Terry Harrell August 14, 2013 at 10:11 am

We make people aware their um, uh, so and other fillers in our little Toastmasters group. We are positive and supportive about them, but still point them out. Our group has improved noticeably, including me. The speeches, table topics, etc. are much better becasuse. We have no “speech coaches” in among the listeners. We keep it simple, and it works.

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toms men March 5, 2014 at 11:20 pm

Folks Previously used to Laugh at the japan – Today We laugh at all of them

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