They crawl up on our speeches, push themselves comfortably into our well practised presentations, sneak up on us - despite our best efforts - when we are answering questions at a conference or an office meeting.
... you know?
They are called “filler words”, “interjections” or “pause fillers”. Whatever your preferred term, what amazes me is that these little critters exist in so many languages. In French we have “n’est ce pas?” (isn’t it), “donc” (so) and “tu vois?” (you see?). In Spanish we battle “este…” (this) and “entonces…” (then). In Norwegian, from what I’ve seen so far, we have “ikke sant” (right), a guttural non-committal sound that goes something like “mmm-mmm”, and “også” (and).
In Spanish we call them “muletillas”, which translates as “little crutches”, a very appropriate term if you ask me.
What are filler words?
What are filler words exactly? They are words that we insert into our spoken language, but almost never written one. They’re often irrelevant words that won’t change the meaning of your sentence, and are used as a transition, to indicate that you haven’t finished speaking while you’re gathering your thoughts, or to soften the end of your sentence.
Filler words can make you look unprepared or hesitant when speaking. Yet, I also think they have a role to play in social integration. If you’ve ever learned a new language among native speakers, you’ve probably noticed that, until you’ve mastered the local filler words, you don’t feel you speak the language fluently. They seem to play a role in facilitating or marking social belonging.
So, do we need to get rid of them or not?
For normal conversation, filler words may not be that problematic. Unless you have more filler words than regular words in your sentence (and some people do!). For speeches and presentations, however, I would recommend to get rid of them. One or two will go unnoticed, but frequent use of them can weaken your presentation.
Easier said than done though.. How do we weed them out when we are not even conscious of using them?
Weeding out your filler words
Here are some of the exercises we use in my public speaking courses to diminish or eliminate filler words.
Use embarrassment to your advantage
If you are preparing a speech or presentation, the most effective, albeit hardest way to get rid of filler words, is to film yourself and then watch the recording. This is painful, I know. Participants in my courses cringe when I make them watch their videos . But at the end of the course they systematically say this is the part that helped them the most. You’re your harshest critic. The discomfort you feel when watching yourself on video is your most powerful tool to improve your speech.
Divide and conquer
Grab a pencil and paper and count your filler words as you watch the recording. Make sure you count each filler word separately, for example, ten “um-ah”, twenty-five “like”, three “er…” and so on. Not all filler words are created equal. Determine which are your most problematic ones, and when do you use them.
Now decide how you are going to tackle them. This is where counting them separately comes in handy.
Substitute by a pause. “Um-ah” and “er” are mostly used when you are trying to gather your thoughts. Instead of eliminating them, try substituting them by a PAUSE. Repeat the phrase and in the place of “er…” say to yourself: “Pause. Breath.” . Take one long breath and then continue. For many of my course participants, imagining the pause as a word that they say only in their minds is much more effective than trying to eliminate the filler word.
We tend to dislike pauses because it seems to us like we are staying silent for too long and the audience will think we’ve forgotten what we wanted to say. The truth is, when you are on the podium, what seems like a one-minute pause to you is usually never more than a couple of seconds to your audience.
Pauses, when used purposefully, can be very powerful tools to create expectation in your audience, to signal a change of subject, or to let what you just said sink in. Don’t be afraid to use them to your advantage.
Substitute by a transition phrase. “So”, “like” and similar filler words are used in transitions. In these cases we can substitute them for “first, second, lastly” , or what I like to call “link sentences”. For example:
“I want to move on now to talk about…”
“This leads us to my second point.”
“Let me explain how this relates to what I was saying in the beginning.”
“I want to make a parenthesis now to talk about…”
“What this means is ...”
Buzz your filler words.
After you’ve decided how to tackle your filler words, rehearse your presentation again. This time ask a friend or coworker to listen to you and hold out a red card every time they hear you use a filler word. When this happens, correct yourself immediately and repeat the last phrase or two, this time without the filler word.
You’ve worked so hard on your presentation or speech, don’t let some nasty filler words dilute its power. But remember not be overly perfectionist, if a couple of filler words remain, they will mostly go unnoticed.
Let me know in the comments, what are your most problematic filler words and how have you got rid of them?
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