Introduction When speaking, we all experience times when we can’t seem to think of a particular word we want to say or when we need more time to organize our thoughts before we speak. We sometimes add what we call “filler words” at these times to give us the extra time we need.
There are many filler words/phrases that may be included when speaking, but here are a few examples of common ones that you may have heard or that you may be using yourself:
I don’t know
We all use filler words from time to time, however they can interfere with the effectiveness of our speech if we use them too much. Realistically, it may not be possible to eliminate them completely, but you can certainly reduce them to a minimum. In any given meeting or presentation, try to limit the number of filler words you use to three. Set that as a goal.
If you’ve ever taken a presentation skills class, the instructor usually instructs the class to eliminate filler words. What they don’t tell you is how to do it.
In order to make any changes in your speech, you first need to be aware of which filler words you use and when they occur. You may be using filler words often, but because they are so automatic, you might not even be aware that you say them.
Filler words occur in two places when we speak:
They occur at the beginning of a sentence when you answer a question
And, they occur in the middle of a sentence at the end of a word, usually when you are going to pause.
Before you can change your speech, you have to be aware of when you say filler words. Try recording your speech for a couple of minutes as you talk about any topic you would like. Don’t read; talk. Go back and listen to your speech and write down the filler words you use and how often they occur. You might want to have someone help you with part of this exercise. Have someone ask you some questions and record your response to see if you begin your answer with a filler word, like “uh” or “um.” Once you know which filler words you are using, how often they are occurring, and where they are occurring, you are ready to start reducing their frequency.
How to eliminate a filler word when it occurs at the beginning of a response to a question, or when starting to make a comment. You are using a filler word in these instances, most likely “uh” or “um”, because you need more time to organize your thoughts to compose your response or comment. In these situations, it is important to completely eliminate filler words. You want your listener to think you are confident and sure of yourself, and using filler words may not give that impression.
Here are some strategies you can use to help you eliminate filler words at the beginning of an answer.
Pause for a second before answering a question.
Give yourself enough time to take a breath through your nose or think of “uh” in your head, but don’t say it out loud. Pausing for just a second will help you avoid filler words. Try to stay within the one-second time frame when responding to a question. A longer wait time, such as three or four seconds, for example, may make your listeners wonder if you understood their question, if you heard the question, or if you are not confident. Answering a question too quickly, such as cutting off a question, is usually viewed as being rude. You want to make sure that the person asking the question completes their question before you start your one-second wait time to answer.
Answer a question in a complete sentence.
When someone asks you a question in the workplace, always try to answer in a complete sentence, rather than a phrase, such as “not yet”, or a single word, such as “yes” or “no.” It always sounds better and more professional to take the time to answer a question with a complete thought.
Use part of the question in your response.
In order to answer a question in a complete thought, you often can use part of the person’s question in your answer. This isn’t always possible, but in most cases it is. This gives you even more time to organize your response, and is a great strategy to use!
Let’s look at some examples Question: What are you going to do this weekend? Answer: This weekend, I’m going to go to the movies. Here you can see that “This weekend, I’m going to” from the question. The only change I had to make was changing the verb from “are” to “am”. That gave me five words to say before I had to be ready to finish the sentence.
Let’s look at another example: Question: How are you doing with your project this week? Answer: This week, I am right on track with my project. In my response this time, I used the words “this week” from the question and then continued with my response. This starter wasn’t’ as long as in the first example, but does give a little bit of extra time for you to organize your thoughts.
How to reduce the frequency of filler words when they occur at the end of words It is at the end of words where most of our filler words occur. Many people insert a filler word where they would naturally pause, or at the end of a word when a pause is not needed.
Use a slightly slower rate in general.
Chances are, if you speak quickly, you most likely use filler words. Speaking quickly doesn’t allow for much time to organize your thoughts or think of specific words. Try slowing down your speaking rate by stretching out the vowels in words in general. By saying the vowels more slowly, you will have more time to organize your thoughts, thereby reducing the need for filler words.
After using part of a question in your response, you can prolong the vowel in the word after it if you still need more time.
Sometimes, someone might ask you a complicated question that you aren’t ready to answer. In this case, you may need more time after you use part of the question in your answer. What you can do here is to stretch out the vowel in the word right after the pause, essentially saying it more slowly. Your listeners will know that you are formulating a response, but it does not interfere with your fluency or the smoothness of your speech. It is also much more acceptable than inserting words that do not belong.
Let’s look at an example: Question: What did you think of yesterday’s meeting? Answer: Yesterday’s meeting was a little intense, to say the least. Here you can see that I used “yesterday’s meeting” as my starter, but I needed more time to finish the sentence. What I did was I stretched out the verb “was” while I thought about what to say and then finished my thought.
You can stretch out more than one word in a sentence.
In difficult speaking situations, you might find that the above strategies aren’t enough. You may have to stretch out more than one word in your sentence while you are thinking about what to say.
Let’s look at the following example: Avoid this: I thinkuh thatuh his response wasuh very informative. This is better: I think that this response was very informative. Here you can see that I used the filler word “uh” three times in the first sentence, which really made it choppy, not to mention that I sounded unsure of myself. In the better sentence, I said the words “think”, “that” and “was” by stretching out the vowel, making those words slower than the rest of the sentence. My listeners know I am trying to think of what to say, but I am not breaking up my sentence by adding “uh”. This is much more acceptable and I’m sure you hear people doing this all the time at work.
Avoid using filler words when pausing or when using conjunctions
If you are using filler words when you speak, it is almost a certainty that you are inserting them when you pause and/or when using conjunctions. Pausing after you make an important point is a great speaking strategy, but pausing and inserting a filler word isn’t. The same goes for adding a filler word after a conjunction, such as “and” or “but.” These are the conjunctions that are used most often, and so are the ones that usually have “uh” added at the end.
So, what can you do to stop using filler words at a pause or after a conjunction? First, it is okay to pause briefly, when it is an appropriate time to pause, as long as it is not more than a half a second to one second. Anything longer in the middle of a sentence is way too long.
Look at the following sample sentence: I can’t make the meeting, but I wish I could. If you pause too long, your listener may assume you have completed your thought and may interrupt you, or get frustrated. Both scenarios are not good.
I can’t make the meeting …(2 second pause) but I wish I could.
Pausing briefly before the conjunction “but” is appropriate and does not interrupt the flow of the sentence.
Listen to this example: I can’t make the meeting (1/2-1 second pause) but I wish I could.
In summary, we all use filler words from time to time. We are human, and we make mistakes. When we overuse them, they become noticeable to our listeners and take away from the message we are trying to convey. Learning how to control your speech and incorporating strategies to help make your speech smoother and more fluent will have a positive impact on the quality of your spoken English.