Those pesky filler words, such as um, uh/ah, like, so, but, you know can creep into our speeches and presentations without us even realizing it. Sometimes we use them a little too much in our speeches and it becomes distracting to our audience. Best practice is to limit your usage of filler words, but I think some trainings go overboard on this rule, making you think that you have to be perfect as a speaker by not saying any filler words at all. This is, of course, very hard to do.
Moreover, it’s unclear how the number of filler words impacts the effectiveness of your message, and I don’t think there’s any evidence to back up the foundational assumption either way.
At the end of the day, the most important thing that you can do as a speaker is to provide well-organized and well-delivered message(s) and content to your audience.
My first fight with filler words
Before I joined Toastmasters in 2014, I had no idea about filler words. I didn’t notice them when I spoke, and I didn’t notice when other presenters used them, even excessively. I remember joining Toastmasters and being simultaneously impressed and intimidated that they count filler words throughout the whole meeting. When I finally mustered up the courage to give my Icebreaker speech (4-6 minute introductory speech about myself), I had nine “umms,” although I am pretty sure I had more and the Er-Ah Counter was just being nice. I couldn’t believe that I had nine filler words in there—I couldn’t even recall when I had said them!
After that, I set the goal for myself to not have any filler words in my speeches—I did not want to be the main focus and call-out on every Er-Ah Counter Report at the end of the meetings! I was now aware of my filler words, which helped me to then fix and break my habit of using them. Every time I said an “um” in my subsequent speeches, I could see the Er-Ah Counter making a little tally mark on their paper. With this classical conditional training (say a filler word and sense the Er-Ah Counter counting it on their report), I slowly started to limit my use of the word “um” in my speeches. However, it would really throw me in some of my early talks. I would say an “um” and then be upset with myself internally and almost lose my train of thought. Sometimes I would even call out the use of the filler word in the statement just in case the Er-Ah Counter didn’t notice it.
By my 10th speech, almost a year later, I had ZERO filler words, according to the Er-Ah Counter’s report! This was a major accomplishment, and I was so proud of myself. But here’s where I got a little lost and misguided—I don’t remember anything about that 10th speech except that I didn’t have any filler words in it. Did I leave the audience with good content and a message they could relate to and remember later? Did I deliver it in a well-organized way to help the audience truly understand the message? I don’t know. I really don’t remember, and if I don’t remember as the speaker, I am sure the audience doesn’t remember either.
I was so focused on accomplishing my zero filler words goal that I forgot my ultimate goal of a speaker—to provide an understandable and insightful message and content to my audience. I forgot about my audience and really only focused on myself.
The Fanatical Focus on Filler Words
I completely understand why public speaking trainers recommend limiting or not using filler words at all in your speech. Filler words, when used excessively, can be very distracting to the audience. They may start to pay attention to your filler words more than your message, which is what we do not want as speakers. If you have a nervous energy, like me, and use filler words excessively in your speech or presentation, the audience may think you are unprepared. Filler words can also decrease your credibility, and the audience may start to think that you’re not well-versed in the subject you’re talking to them about. Filler words can also affect your delivery. Let’s say you are trying to drum up suspense and silence, but you keep filling that silence with an “um” or “uh,” you may take away from that suspense you are trying to create.
My forgiving, lenient take on filler words
I get all of the reasons to limit filler words in your speeches and presentations, and I think it is important to be aware of your filler word usage and how it is affecting the most important parts of your speech: your content, message, organization, and delivery. With that said, I think sometimes we get so caught up in trying to limit our filler words and be perfect that we forget about our content, message and substance. The Er-Ah Counter is a great awareness tool to learn that you are using filler words excessively. However, I think it can be intimidating to new speakers and create a sense of perfectionism that just isn’t necessary.
I have seen and heard many memorable speeches that have been littered with filler words. However, their story/message was so strong that the filler words did not detract from the overall message. One example of this that I will always remember is The Moth story “Hoboken Roast Beef” by Adam Wade. I was taking a free creative writing class, and the instructor sent us the link to listen as an example of creating a wonderful story about everyday, mundane things. As I started listening, I immediately noticed all the filler words and couldn’t believe this was an example of a good story. But a few minutes in, my silly judgements subsided, and I started to enjoy the story. It is an excellent story – very humorous and heartfelt at the same time, and also relatable too! The storyteller’s pace is quick and frantic, which leads to him using more filler words, but that seems to fit his personality and his perspective in the story as well. I love this story and how he tells it! I have not listened to any of his other stories or speeches yet to know if this is his style or it was just this particular story, but either way, he did a great job in creating a memorable story that I still remember even a year later after listening to it.
My argument here is that a good story and message can overcome and surpass even the most excessive use of filler words. Perfectionism (in terms of filler words) does not enhance our speech much. No one in the audience has walked away from a speech saying, “That speech had no filler words in it! It was excellent!” The audience may only notice your filler words if used excessively.
This term excessively is very vague in most public speaking trainings as well because it’s subjective. To me, excessively means if you use a filler word about once a sentence on average. Others will have their own definitions of excessive amount of filler words, but the point is that it’s excessive when it takes away from your content and your message.
If you are a speaker who has been told you use filler words too much, that is certainly something to be aware of. However, take comfort in the lenient view that you don’t have to be perfect and make your speech filler word-free. Focus more on your content, message, organization and delivery, and your audience won’t even notice you had some minor filler words occasionally throughout your speech.
Three strategies to improve your speeches, which will also help you to limit your use of filler words
Perhaps you are someone who uses filler words excessively and wants to improve. If you focus on some of these strategies, then that may help you to improve your filler word problem while also improving your speeches and presentations.
1. WATCH YOUR SPEECH VIDEOS AFTERWARDS
This can be uncomfortable, but it is essential if you want to refine your performance. When you watch yourself, you may realize that you used more filler words than you thought you had. You can also notice where you use filler words more—is it in the beginning and end or more in the middle of your speech? Perhaps you really practiced and had your opening and conclusion down, so you didn’t use fillers words at all, but the middle of your speech isn’t quite as practiced, which leads to you using more filler words inadvertently. Being aware of how many times you use filler words and when you most often use them is your first step in fixing the problem. Watching your speech videos afterwards will also help you to see what is working in your speech and what isn’t in terms of organization and delivery. You can learn how well you are getting your content and message across and how you can improve that for the next time.
2. THE POWER OF THE PAUSE
Filler words usually come up when people are transitioning from one point to another and feel you need to fill the silence. Purposeful silence in speeches, just like in movie theaters, is golden. Use a pause to signify that you are moving on to another thought, paragraph, example, etc. You can also use a pause to add to the suspense and make your audience wonder what will happen next (caveat here: only if this fits your story; if overused, this may be annoying to your audience who wants you to get to the point). The pause can be very powerful when used appropriately. Use it wisely to help you enhance your speech and give you the extra benefit of less filler words.
3. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!
I use this saying/mantra a lot in our A-Ha! Method Podcast (probably to an annoying extent), but it’s so true for public speaking and most other things in life. Practice makes progress, and I am trying to force myself to practice more too!
Practice your speech ahead of time. Practice it often. Practice it a lot! Practice in front of an audience, then get some feedback, practice it at home some more, and then give it again. You will get better at your particular speech and presentation the more times you practice, and you will also be more comfortable speaking in front of people in general if you continue to practice in front of an audience. Commonsense I know, but this actually involves a lot of effort and pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, which is easier said than done.
You can practice, practice, practice at one our Speakers Alliance weekly practice sessions. We will focus our feedback on your content, message, organization and delivery, and we will only mention filler words if you use them excessively.
Final feelings about filler words
If you focus on more important aspects of your speech, such as content, message, organization and delivery, then everything else will fall into place, including not using filler words. Let’s stop putting so much pressure on ourselves as speakers to be perfectly polished and start focusing more on our authenticity and the audience takeaways. Filler words are a small part of the presentation, and if you are just focusing on that as a speaker, an evaluator, and even an audience member, then you are missing out on other key areas.
Our stance at Speakers Alliance is that it’s okay to have a few filler words here and there in your speech and presentation if they happen to slip out. Don’t fret if you say a few – keep going with your speech and continue wowing your audience with your incredible story, message and content. That’s what we care about most of all!
Speakers Alliance is here to help with all areas of improving your public speaking. Here are a few resources to check out to take your public speaking to a new level: