Everybody uses filler words occasionally. I’m definitely guilty of it myself!
You’ll even hear big celebrities like David Letterman or Terri Gross use filler words if you listen to them for a few minutes. It’s not a huge deal if it’s something that you only do every once and a while.
The problem is when your speech becomes so full of filler words that it starts to take away from your message. People might find themselves so annoyed by it that they begin to count every “like” or “um” that you’re saying instead of actually taking in your message.
If you think that might be the case for you, then I’ve got a few tips on how to stop saying um, like, you know, and other common filler words.
You might be wondering why we use filler phrases to begin with.
Think of the little spinning circle on your computer when it’s trying to load information. Our brains are basically computers, and when there’s a gap between your mind connecting one word to the next, it can create a natural space that filler words rush in to fill.
Filler words hurt presentations. But even if you’re not presenting, the way you speak still affects how people perceive you. We’ve all heard someone with that stereotypical “valley girl” accent that seems to use the word “like” every other word. Regardless of whether it’s true or not, overusing filler words can make you seem uncertain or less intelligent.
Dropping the filler words from your vocabulary can make you seem more organized and confident. People will take what you say more seriously and give you more respect. It’s sad that these superficial details can distract from an otherwise compelling message. But at the end of the day it’s just human nature.
Now you’re probably wondering how to avoid filler words exactly. Well here are a few of my favorite techniques that can help remove the “ums” and “ahs” from your vocabulary.
1. Get Comfortable With Silence
Silence is the reason that people feel compelled to use filler words to begin with.
We try to fill the silence in our speech with filler expressions because we worry about what it will sound like. We worry that people will think that we’ve lost track of what we were talking about.
But letting silence become a natural part of your speech actually adds emphasis and allows people to consider our message for a moment and let it sink in.
2. Record Yourself Speaking
If you aren’t sure if you use a lot of ums and likes in your speech, a good place to start is to record yourself speaking naturally for a few minutes.
Most cell phones have a recording app that you can use to record your voice.
If you don’t have access to any kind of microphone, you can just practice speaking a little louder than you usually would. This alone is a powerful tool that will allow you to hear your filler words and become more aware of them.
You’ll quickly see if filler words are a problem for you!
3. Replace Filler Words With The Word “Period” or “Pause”
Imagine that you’re ending the sentence with a period every time that you make a pause in your speech.
“Period” or “pause” are great words to use instead of filler words. This is one of my favorite techniques, and personally I think it’s one of the most powerful ones. It’s especially powerful if you struggle with “ums” and “ahs” between sentences.
Start by replacing the word “like” or “um” with the word period or pause. Actually say the word out loud.
If you would typically say “My favorite fruit is a banana. Uhhhh… that’s because bananas are yellow. Um… and yellow is my favorite color.”
“My favorite fruit is a banana. PERIOD. That’s because bananas are yellow. PERIOD. And yellow is my favorite color!”
It will feel pretty strange at first, but give it a shot. Obviously don’t start shouting the word PERIOD in the middle of sentences when you’re at work. But if you’re just talking with a family member or a friend, let them know what you’re trying to do and they’ll understand.
Once you’re comfortable saying the word period or pause out loud, then start doing it silently in your head. When you’re silently saying period or pause in your head, your mouth should be fully closed. Otherwise filler words tend to slip out. Imaging a fly buzzing around your mouth if that helps you keep it closed!
Eventually you’ll get to the point that you can drop the internal “period” and “pause” entirely and just be comfortable with the silence.
4. Stop And Take A Breath
Stop using filler words and just take a breath instead!
Taking a breath is a good option when you need to stop for a split second and think of an answer.
It will make you seem a lot more confident and composed.
Instead of saying “I want to get, like, Chinese food for dinner,” try this instead… “I want to get (inhale) Chinese food for dinner.”
5. Name Them And Shame Them
A great way to make yourself conscious of your filler words is to write down a list of them and keep them on your desk or somewhere that you’ll see them several times each day.
The repetition of seeing the filler words will help make your brain more aware of them in your everyday speech. After just a couple of days you might start to catch yourself saying filler words more often. Being aware of them is the first step toward eliminating them!
Everybody has different filler words, so having a list of your worst offenders will really help hone your attention in on them.
6. The “Uh” Bell
Get a family member or a friend to hold a bell or pull up an annoying buzzer noise on their phone. Have them listen to you talk, and get them to make a noise every time you use a filler word.
You’ll want to protect yourself from hearing the annoying noise and will naturally start to use filler words less and less often. This technique works so well that even just five minutes every day for a week will really help start to condition you.
I got the idea of the “uh” bell from Toastmasters, which is a group of worldwide clubs that focus on promoting public speaking and communication skills. If you really want to take your public speaking to the next level, I’d recommend looking for a Toastmasters group in your area.
7. Chunk Your Information
Filler words slip into our speech when we don’t know what we’re going to say in advance.
If you break your sentences into chunks ahead of time, you’re less likely to resort to using fillers.
Breaking your speech up into chunks in your head before speaking creates a natural rhythm. You’ll say a bunch of words, then take a pause. Then say another bunch of words, pause again, and repeat.
Like other techniques I’ve talked about, this one can take some work to get sounding natural while you’re speaking.
8. Make Eye Contact
You’re less likely to use filler words like “um” or “ah” if you’re looking someone directly in the eye.
Part of why we use filler words comes from a lack of confidence, and making eye contact with someone can help to boost your confidence.
The next time that you’re in a meeting, try speaking individually to people one on one and look them in the eye. See if this helps you to use fewer filler words than just speaking to the room as a whole.
9. Take A Moment To Calm Yourself Down
If you’re about to give a big speech (or even if you just have some big news to share with a family member or friend), take a few seconds to calm your nerves before you begin. I find that taking a deep breath is an excellent way to instantly reduce your stress and tension in a significant way. Just make sure not to inhale audibly so that it sounds like a big sigh to everyone around you!
If you find yourself getting flustered in the middle of your speech, don’t be afraid of taking a deep breath to regroup and reset. It’s often better than trying to struggle through for several more minutes without relaxing first.
10. Keep Your Hands Out Of Your Pockets
People perceive speakers who use non-verbal communication like hand gestures to be more confident and persuasive.
If you keep your hands in your pockets, you’re ignoring an important tool at your disposal. That tool is the ability to use gestures to emphasize your speech.
Having your hands in your pockets also makes you both look and feel insecure. And when you don’t feel confident, the number of filler words that you use tends to go up.
So don’t keep your hands in your pocket or feel like you need to hold your arms at your sides when you’re speaking. Just let your hands do their natural thing, and the words will come out better and with less filler.
11. Keep Your Sentences Short
You’ve probably listened to someone who seemed to do a lot of talking, but not actually get a lot of information across.
The longer that your sentences are, the more likely it is that you’ll start adding filler into them.
Short sentences sound a lot more confident and forceful. Plus they get the message across more clearly.
So try to keep your sentences short, sweet, and to the point!
In addition to cutting out filler words, you also want to cut out hedge words like “probably” “just” and “hopefully.” These words make it sound like you’re not confident about your ideas and are walking on eggshells in case you’re wrong or might offend somebody.
12. Preparation Is Key
The more that you’ve prepared what you want to say, the less likely you are to use filler words.
If you’re giving a speech, repeat it out loud or in your head a few times in advance before you need to actually deliver it.
If you’re going into a one-on-one meeting with your boss or have an important conversation to have with your significant other, think about the message that you want to get across. As well as what some of their most likely objections may be. That way you’ll be more prepared and won’t be caught off-guard if the conversation doesn’t go exactly as you had hoped.
The fresher the information is in your mind, the less likely it is that you’ll need to rely on filler words while you’re retrieving the information from your memory.
13. Realize That You’re Your Own Worst Critic
Nobody can tell that you’re nervous, and most people listening to you won’t pick up on all of the little mistakes that notice yourself making. That’s true whether you’re speaking to an audience or even a group of friends who knows you well.
Your pauses are also probably way shorter than they feel in your head. When we’re presenting, it can feel like we’re moving and talking in slow motion. Sometimes it can even feel like you see people in the audience blinking in slow motion while you’re talking.
A three second pause can feel like an eternity to you while you’re talking. But to other people in a meeting with you, it will probably look completely natural or go totally unnoticed.
So how do you stop saying um, like, uh, and other filler words? Now you should have a pretty good idea.
Hopefully at least one of the strategies I’ve talked about here will resonate with you. Feel free to try whichever you think will help the most. Or even combine several of them together.
Usually the hardest part is realizing that we have a problem with filler words. Now that you’re aware that you use filler words, you just need to make a conscious effort to reduce your use of them.
The good news is that it isn’t a hard habit for most people to overcome. For the first few days, you might constantly find yourself slipping up and adding “likes” and “ums” to your conversations. But if you really watch yourself, before long you can expect to see a big improvement in how you sound to other people.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s not the end of the world of filler words creep into your vocabulary from time to time. But now you’ve got the techniques to feel confident and more in control about how you’re coming across to other people.