Fillers – get them down !!!

18 Mar

A Strategy for Removing Filler Words from Your Speech

I wish there were a switch that could be flipped to strike these from a speaker’s vocabulary. (I would flip the switch for myself!) Since the magic switch is elusive, here are the steps I recommend for minimizing these fillers.

Step 1 — Assess how often you are using filler words.

Before you embark on an effort to extinguish filler words, you should assess how frequently you utter filler words in your presentations. There are three easy ways to do this:

  1. Recruit an audience member to track it and provide feedback. Ask them not only to provide a count of each filler used, but also to comment on the impact.
  2. Record your voice, and do an objective analysis. I occasionally do this with a digital voice recorder. This can be done non-obtrusively for nearly any speech you deliver.
  3. Record yourself on video. This is marginally more obtrusive, but delivers more benefits. You get verbal feedback, but you also get to see the expressions on your face and what happens to your eyes when you are… uh… filling in words.

Your goal in assessment is to answer the following:

  • How often are you inserting filler words?
  • Are they distracting?
  • Are they undermining your credibility?

Step 2 — Understand why you are doing it, and why it is unnecessary.

Filler words — that is, filler sounds, filler words, and filler phrases — are inserted when our brain needs a moment to catch up to our mouth.

In certain contexts, filler words can serve a minor purpose. In a phone conversation, for example, a filler word sends a signal to the other person which says “I’m still thinking, and I’m not willing to pass the conversation back to you just yet.” In this way, the filler word fills the otherwise dead space which might indicate that you have completed your thought.

In the majority of public speaking situations, however, this is a completely useless signal. There isn’t any risk of someone in the audience taking over as soon as you go silent for a moment. You don’t need to fill that space to say that you’re thinking. You just need to … think, and your audience will understand.

Step 3 — Raise your level of preparation.

I have observed my filler word usage is highest when my preparation is lowest. Failure to prepare adequately has two effects:

  1. Your brain needs to “create” words on the fly, as opposed to pulling them from (preparation) memory. This increases cognitive strain, making it more likely that you’ll fall behind.
  2. You are (usually) more nervous when unprepared. Feeling nervous makes most people speak quicker, thus making it more likely that your brain won’t keep up.

One additional aspect of preparation which merits mentioning is the importance ofadequate rest. When you are rested, your brain will be sharper and you will find it easier to articulate your thoughts without stumbling.

Adequate preparation (which has many other benefits) will thus reduce the occurrence of filler words.

“As speakers force more and more content into their presentation, they’ll have to talk faster and faster to complete it on time. Avoid this temptation.”

Step 4A — Slow down.

Slowing your pace will also reduce those um’s and ah’s, because it makes it easier for your brain to keep up. It doesn’t have to be a drastic change; even a modest reduction in pace will help. As an added bonus, speaking a bit slower probably improves the ability of your audience to understand you.


To make this possible, you must be realistic about your time constraints and the amount of material you have. As speakers force more and more content into their presentation, they’ll have to talk faster and faster to complete it on time. Avoid this temptation.

Step 4B — Embrace the pause.

The best advice I ever received to reduce ums and ahs is to just pause. Replace the filler word(s) with silence. Since you’ve probably become accustomed to using filler words, replacing them with silence will take practice. Commit yourself to the change, and it will happen.

Step 5 — Monitor your progress, and be patient.

Every so often, step back and monitor your progress. Revisit the assessment tasks in Step 1, and compare the results.

  • Have you reduced the frequency of filler words in your speech?
  • Have you reduced the negative impact on your effectiveness caused by using filler words?
  • Do you notice a correlation between preparedness and speaking filler-free?
  • Is your pace slower?
  • Are you simply pausing when you think about what to say next?

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