Many of us use informal filler words such as “um,” “OK,” “like,” or “you know” in our everyday speech. Such informal language is common and usually acceptable if it is not peppered throughout our speech. However, when speaking as a professional, filler words cause your speech to be far less effective. It is during more formal presentations when those filler words often emerge, usually due to nerves. Though it is not easy to eliminate the habit of using filler words, it can be accomplished with a conscious effort.
Recognizing when you use filler words is the first step to reigning in their use. Consider either (1) taping yourself practicing a presentation to determine when and how often you use filler words or (2) giving your presentation to a relative, friend, or colleague and asking that person to interrupt you every time you utter a filler word. Some even suggest that the listener alert you each time you use a filler word using a sound device such as a clicker.
Becoming aware of your own speech patterns is the first step toward eliminating the bad habit. Then consider adopting the following three steps: pause, visualize, and, only then, speak.
It’s OK to be quiet. Too often, we use filler words while thinking of what to say next, and we feel compelled to fill the void with words or sounds. Instead, take a breath when you pause between words or sentences. Oftentimes merely breathing can help you control what comes out next, allowing the pause rather than the filler words to create the flow in your conversation. If you use filler words between words in your sentences, consider also changing your speech's rhythm—for example, by slowing down and pacing yourself better. This change in your speech pattern may allow you sufficient time to think of the substance you want to say next and to avoid the compulsion of pausing with nothing to say and then filling that pause with a filler word.
If you tend to use filler words at the beginning of a sentence or between sentences, consider visualizing the first word or phrase you want to say before opening your mouth. Let the pause before your first sentence and between sentences work to your advantage. If you are answering questions, your pause can convey the message that you are thinking carefully about your answer before speaking.
Consider whether there are other, more formal ways to begin your sentence. For example, if you are responding to a judge’s question, it will never be inappropriate to begin with a “Your Honor.”
If you tend to interject filler words throughout your presentation or in response to a question, practice just a few sentences at a time, repeating those few sentences until you have eliminated the filler words. This may require you to change your phrasing.
If giving a formal presentation or arguing before one or more judges, consider writing “No Ums” at the top of your notes, so each time you look down, you are reminded of what to avoid.
Only Then, Speak
Now you should be ready to convey the substantive message you want to convey without unnecessary “filler speak.” Enjoy!