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How to reduce filler words in your presentation



I want to talk about a topic we can all relate to: how to use fewer “umms” and “ahhs” in your presentation. Otherwise known as fillers—short sounds, words, or phrases that create a pause or indicate to someone that we’re not done talking.


We all do it. To wit:

  • Um, uh, oh, er, ah

  • Like

  • Just

  • Really

  • You know, you see, right

  • I mean, I guess, I suppose, I know

  • Well

In reality, there’s nothing “technically” wrong will filler sounds and words. We all say them and we usually say them without conscious thought. Academics call them disfluencies because they disrupt the normal flow of speech. American linguist Noam Chomsky referred to filler words as just mistakes in language. In fact, every language has them. The French say “eu” and “em,” Spanish speakers say “eh” and “este” and Japanese say “eto.” There is even a sign in American Sign Language for “um.”


The problem is that filler sounds and words can inhibit our ability to communicate clearly.


Having strong verbal communication skills is still a key indicator of career success.

That’s what this post is about: how to use fewer filler words in your presentation. First, we’ll consider why we use filler words and some of the dangers they represent. Then I’ll outline a five-step process for reducing your dependency on filler words. After you read this post, you should have some actionable ideas about what you can do to speak more smoothly and clearly.


This post is drawn in part from the NobleEdge leadership workshop, The Art of Skilled Presentations. In addition to learning about how to use your mind and body to increase your presentation skills, participants practice and present with each other to learn how to make their presentations impactful and memorable.


Now, on to the post!


Why we use filler words


One of the most common reasons we use filler words is to hold the audience’s attention while we figure out what to say next. We use them because deep inside we’re concerned that if we aren’t uttering something, they’re going to interrupt. Or leave. It’s a type of verbal gesture to indicate: “Wait. I’m not done yet.”


People often use filler words when they’re trying to think and speak at the same time. That’s why they often appear during transitions in your presentation. In that micro-second pause, your brain is trying to figure out its next move.


Another reason we use them is cultural. The “Valley Girl” phenomenon in the 1980’s had an entire generation inserting the word “like” everywhere. Saying “you know” at the end of every sentence became huge in the 1990’s and is still going strong today (unfortunately).


People also can use filler words to convince someone or gain agreement. I once had a colleague who used the word “right” at the end of most of her sentences. It not only became irritating, it also set her up for confrontation if someone actually didn’t agree with her. You know what I’m saying, right? …you get my point.


Dangers of filler sounds and words


Everybody uses some filler sounds and words from time to time. It can become part of our speech pattern and as such, they become normal and we don’t even know we are using them.


The problem is overuse. When we overuse filler words, we undermine our credibility. The filler words become crutches. Or worse, they make it more difficult for our audience to understand our point. (If you want to watch a painful example, here’s a YouTube video of Caroline Kennedy when she was being interviewed on her run for the US Senate.)


Experts have found that overusing filler words undermines the effectiveness of communication. Speakers come across as nervous, lacking confidence or generally unprepared. Use of filler words also has been attributed to indifference or lack of knowledge.


Yikes!


At worst, filler words have been attributed to an indication of lying. For example, if you are talking with someone and they are using more filler words than they usually do, research says they might be lying to you. People who are fibbing may pause more often as they are searching for what to say next.


How to reduce filler words in your presentation


Now that we have a better understanding of the reasons why filler sounds and words sneak into our conversations and the dangers they can present, let’s look at a five-step process for reducing them in our presentations.


Step 1—Become aware of your speech patterns


To use a cliché, the first step in overcoming a problem is to admit you have a problem. We use filler words so often in our daily discussions that we don’t even notice how often we use them. So, you will benefit from becoming aware of your speech patterns.


Take me. When I was a girl in high school, I said “like” all the time. It was, like, ubiquitous. Drove my Mom nuts. When she complained that I said it all the time, I didn’t believe her. So, she took it upon herself to increase my awareness. Every time I’d say “like,” she’d repeat the word back to me. It irritated me at first, but then I had to admit: She was right. I did say “like” too much! (Her approach worked, by the way. I stopped.)


You can do the same thing.


Take your next presentation and present it to family or friends. Better yet, while you’re doing that, record yourself. Have them point out every instance of a filler word or replay the recording and identify how often you use a filler word.


Like my teenage self, you might be surprised. When you bring this otherwise invisible fact to your awareness, you’ll be able to influence more control over it.


(Side note: please be kind to yourself. The goal is not to eliminate 100% filler words. Rather, it is to reduce the occurrence of them. Using filler words from time to time doesn’t make you a terrible speaker.)


Step 2—Chunk out your information


One of the most common reasons we insert filler words is because we’re talking too quickly or grasping for our next thought. To overcome this, take your presentation and chunk it. That is, break it into phrases. Chunks that you can speak clearly and then pause on purpose. That way, you’re hopping from chunk to chunk. You get into a rhythm: phrase/pause/phrase/pause.


It might feel awkward at first—like crossing your arms the opposite way. However, by speaking a phrase at a time, you reduce the need for a filler word. You will find this provides a smoother flow to your speech.

This approach works best when you have a prepared speech. If you are having a normal conversation, try to speak one thought at a time. Slow down.


Step 3—Plan your transitions


As I said earlier, one of the reasons we use filler words is that we mentally “hiccup” during our transitions to the next topic in your presentation. That “um” is you gathering your thoughts for a second.


So instead of “um” or “ahh,” plan your transitions with such alternative phrases as “Now, let’s move to the next topic” or “Let’s transition to talking about . . .”


Transitions become signposts, telling your audience where you’re headed next. It’s obvious to you, but not necessarily to them. Make it obvious—and remove an opportunity for a filler word. A caution here: President Ronald Reagan was notorious for using the word, “Well…” in his transitions to the point it became ridiculous. Note to self: mix it up.


Step 4—Embrace the pause


We’re so afraid of pauses in our presentation—even tiny ones. It seems interminable, those few seconds. To calm ourselves, or to prevent being interrupted, we cram in an “umm” or an “ahh.”


It’s okay to pause during a presentation. In fact, it makes for a more compelling presentation. Don’t be afraid that your audience will think you’ve forgotten what to say. Actually, strategically placed pauses not only capture the attention of your audience, they strengthen your aura of credibility and confidence.


If you are really concerned about being interrupted during a pause, try using a gentle hand gesture to let people know you are still talking. (Be polite, though!). Or be outright and say, “Just a moment,” then collect your thoughts to continue.


See:The power of silence in presentations


Step 5—Prepare


This should go without saying, shouldn’t it? But you’d be surprised how few people adequately prep for their speeches or presentations. And preparing means actually giving the presentation—to friends or family or during your commute—not just silently reading it to yourself off hard copy.


The less prepared you are, the more nervous you’ll be and the more nervous you are the more likely you are to use filler words. The more you practice, the calmer you’ll be.


See: How to get better at public speaking.


How to reduce filler words in your presentation


Filler words pop into our presentation when we’re nervous or searching for our next thought. They can distract your audience and they are credibility diminishers if they’re overused. When the time comes for your next presentation, increase your awareness of filler words, break your presentation into manageable phrases, plan your transitions, use pauses and prepare. I’m sure you’ll see immediate improvement, greater confidence and better communication skills.


Right? (sorry, I couldn’t resist)



Marie Tjernlund is the Co-founder and President of NobleEdge Consulting. As an accomplished executive coach, certified Conflict Dynamics Profile® facilitator, and a professional performer, Marie brings her positive energy and enthusiasm to clients around the world. You can contact her at Marie@NobleEdgeConsulting.com.


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