Article Category: Delivery Techniques

Are… um… Filler Words… ah… Okay?


Filler Words Public SpeakingUm.

No other two letter word says so much when a speaker says so little.

Except perhaps ah or uh or so.

Are filler words the most sensational speaking sin you can commit? Or do they make you imperfectly human and help you connect with your audience?

The topic has created quite a buzz in public speaking blogs recently, so read on to find out what the experts are saying.

Um… the Book

Authored by Michael Erard, Um… : Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders and What They Mean aims to be the most authoritative work on the topic.

Personally, I haven’t read it, but I am curious due to positive reviews from highly credible sources.

New York Times Book Review:

…An enjoyable tour of linguistic mishaps… …Rewarding.

Publishers Weekly:

…Challenges the reader to think about his or her own speech in an entirely new way.

Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Erard’s enthusiasm for his subject is infectious. He gets you wondering about blundering.

Oprah’s O Magazine:

…An absorbing survey of the (mis)spoken word, from ancient Egyptian cases of speechlessness to television bloopers…

You can listen to the author read chapter one here [MP3].

If you’ve read the whole book, please let me know whether this should be required reading for Six Minutes readers.

Perspective on Filler Words from Public Speaking Bloggers

If the book doesn’t grab you, maybe the opinions of several excellent public speaking bloggers will resonate with you?

  • Jerry Weissman draws attention to Obama’s filler words.

… “er” or “um.” When spoken, those two sounds are known as “fillers” or “unwords,” because they have no meaning. Unwords are the bane of any speaker’s existence because they produce a perception of uncertainty. …

I can tell you with absolute certainty that unwords undercut any presenter’s effectiveness, including that of the current President of the United States and his far more often than not charismatic speaking style.

  • Olivia Mitchell offers a cure — chunking — to eliminate ahs and ums.

To be effective at stopping the habit you have to focus on something else – something positive that you can do, as an alternative to um’ing. That alternative is chunking. Chunking is talking in short chunks of words with breaks in between the chunks. When you chunk you get into a rhythm: burst of words/break/burst of words/break….Focus on that rhythm and your um’s will go.

  • Steve Arrowood listssituations that motivate us to inadvertently utter ‘non-words’?”
  1. We are processing at a deeper level than surface thoughts or well-rehearsed phrases, while at the same time we feel the expectations of people around us to speak.
  2. We were asked a question and feel social pressure to start speaking quickly or we will look dumb.
  3. We are running 0ut of allotted time and feel pressure.
  4. We pressure ourselves to sound like what we think an expert should sound like.
  5. We don’t want someone else to start speaking yet.
  • Steve Arrowood argues that filler words are okay in moderation.

Because there are no defined rules in the court of public speaking law, somehow the rule of speaking just defaulted into: NEVER USE A SINGLE FILLER.

But that rule is wrong. It is a ‘letter of the law’ rule rather than a ‘spirit of the law’ rule.

Croucher found that college men and women used about the same numbers of Uhs and Ums. However, women used both Like and You Know a LOT more than the men. He suggested this was due to a cultural influence from Southern California as humorously portrayed by Frank Zappa in the song, Valley Girl.

  • Max Atkinson points out a possible correlation between “the” and “uh”.

Interestingly, the definite article often comes before ‘uhs’ and ‘ums’ when we’re speaking. Even more interesting is the fact that, when it does, speakers invariably use the ‘thee’ form: ‘thee-uh’.

  • James Feudo questions whether Toastmasters needs the Ah Counter role.

… society has become less formal in recent years and therefore, the standards for what constitutes a good speech (or a good speaker) have dropped. …

Now if you can relay a powerful message, most audiences will forgive a few filler words…

What’s Your Opinion on Filler Words?

Credibility killer for a speaker, or nothing to worry about?

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Comments icon24 Comments

  1. lech says:

    1. Definitely a distraction for the listener.
    2. Definitely interferes with the pace of the speech.
    3. Definitely shows inadequate preparation.

    Strong words, I know. But then, imagine a singer who would break in the middle of song to do a series of “ummms” and “uhhhhs”. It just doesn’t fit.

    My recommendation – use a tape recorder, use a tape recorder, use a tape recorder. I bet one who uses filler words, after taking the listener’s perspective, will consider working on it ;-)

    Thanks for the reminder! Greetings!

    -Lech

  2. I’ve written a number of articles on public speaking. It goes without saying that filler words distract the listener. When your listeners hear the fillers, they are not listening to you.
    Furthermore, the um’s, ah’s are a substitute for a powerful silence. Silence leaves room for your listeners to process what you just said. I always tell my groups that you want to leave your listeners with a full mind. In other words, when you say something powerful, your mind is empty and theirs is full. At that point an um, ah, or any other type of filler destroys the message.

    I agree with Lech. The use of a tape recorder to tape your end of telephone calls helps. You can also subscribe to myaudioacrobat and tape your full conversation. I find the simple recording of your end works the best.

  3. I’ve written about this several times (even quoted you once, Andrew!), and I’m in the camp that says it’s time to stop giving “ums” so much significance in public speaking. When you’re having conversations with your friends, you say “um” occasionally. When I’m giving a presentation, I’m having a conversation with my audience, and if I’m well prepared (as I always am), a few fillers are not going to destroy my connection with the audience.

    I’ll let you know when I finish Erard’s book; I’m enjoying it so far, and I do think it brings something new and valuable to a speaker’s library.

    Here are some of my posts on fillers:
    http://tinyurl.com/4sqnz6
    http://tinyurl.com/bd5bpb
    http://tinyurl.com/59vtpy

  4. Hi Andrew
    Thank you for doing such a useful summary on all the recent writing on this issue. My view is that it’s better to speak without ums and ahs but the odd um is not a credibility-killer. The best proof of that is Obama. Olivia

  5. Thanks for addressing the subject. Here is a post on curing overuse of um and other habits: http://www.hardingco.com/blog/2009/03/16/dont-do-that-curing-bad-sales-habits/

    Ford Harding

  6. “1. Definitely a distraction for the listener.”

    I’m afraid, according to science that’s not true. In fact, fillers can even improve the understanding of your words. Several studies have shown that people remember “difficult” parts of your speech better when they are preceded by an “um” (because this way they are prepared for it).

    Sure, this doesn’t mean to use “um” purposely, but it is clear evidence that “ums” aren’t such a great harm at all as long as you don’t use it excessively.

    Evidence e.g. in these two scientific papers:
    http://www.unc.edu/~jarnold/papers/Arnold.Fagnano.Tanenhaus.JPR.pdf
    http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2006.10.010

  7. Nothing that you say can kill a speech that has great content. However, you need to view each word as a tool with which to connect with your audience and “um’s” and “ah’s” are basically wasted words.

    This generally happens because our brains are racing ahead to figure out what we want to say next. Practice is the ultimate cure – this is how you’ll always know what comes next…!

    - Dr. Jim Anderson
    The Accidental Communicator Blog
    “Learn How To intimately connect with your audience in order to make an lasting impact in their lives.”

  8. Jon Thomas says:

    I truly don’t believe it’s that big of a deal. Yes, it can distract the audience slightly, but it can also endear you to them (just as slightly). So much about branding is transparency. As a presenter, you want to be you, the real you, up there. Nobody speaks perfectly. It’s abnormal to speak perfectly. If we can get past the fear of having a few “um’s” and “ah’s” in our presentations, we can begin to tackle larger problems.

  9. I have a small post about this on my blog:
    http://bharathreddyt.wordpress.com/2009/05/15/ah-hmm-well-you-know-i-mean-actually-basically-like/

    Filler words are used essentially to keep talking when you’ve to give a little time to your mind to pop the next word you would utter. Practicing your speeches would be a great way to avoid using them but again, how often do we practice and talk? a better way is to notice and keep track of your fillers yourself. May be record when you speak and listen to it later.Once you become aware of your fillers, you’ll automatically reduce using them; that is, if you wish to be a good speaker.

  10. Gene Grindle says:

    Anything that doesn’t add value to your communication diminishes your communications. Period.

    Filler words add nothing.

    While it is true that one or two is not a killer, why not aim for zero.

  11. The author of Um… here. I really do recommend that people read this book, because it will help people answer a lot of these questions. Why do hesitation phenomena occur? Do they have a function? Is a speech really like a conversation? Where did the notion that umlessness is a feature of good speaking come from?

    On the notion of whether “um” distracts (which I see in a few comments here):
    1. the scholarly evidence that filled pauses distract listeners from messages and taint a speaker’s credibility seems to come universally from university speech communication classes, so the sample is very biased to rating them negatively.
    2. Some later psycholinguistic research has shown that listeners recognize words *faster* when they are preceded by an “uh” or “um” — that contradicts the notion that filled pauses are universally problematic in all speech acts.
    3. In fact, all listeners do not attend to filled pauses. A certain proportion of listeners naturally attend to content; a certain proportion naturally attend to style. This will be hard to believe in a Toastmasters context, where you’re trained to listen for style — which means that TMers are unnaturally primed to listen for the “uh.” How it made its way into the TM program is something I describe in my book, in the chapter, “A brief history of ‘um.’”

    There’s much more to say about this — and I did, in my book.

    thanks,
    Michael

  12. Personally I find “filler word” undermine the power of the presenter to convey his/her message effectively. Just within day to day communication alone, I hear overuse of “ums, and ahs” – which greatly impair the credibility of the speaker.

    I say steer clear! These are surely words we do not want to give more power to.

  13. Allyncia says:

    The “um” does give away a lot. I think that it gives a level of authenticity yet that unrehearsed sound also exposes one’s true heart and that can be risky. Maybe instead of talking about Obama’s ‘um’s we need to give some attention to Biden’s. Its not easy to live speaking on the record so we all have to take some punches as public speakers who may want to speak off the cuff because sometimes we really drive home a good point. Think before we speak is always the best point we could ever make.

  14. Jonathan says:

    This book will be on my must read list. Through the years, there have been numerous speakers and even radio DJ’s who add “uh’s, and uh’s and other word whiskers on purpose. Few were able to pull it off.

    One of the most distracting of them is saying and now, and now, and now for every connective.

    At this point, not having read the book, it is going to be hard to wrap my mind around the idea that it could be good.

    I have written about this and feel the pinnacle is being able to avoid, uh, using them.

    http://www.speechmastery.com/word-whiskers.html

    http://www.speechmastery.com/word-whisker-elimination.html

  15. Kevin says:

    Is “right” a filler word?

    I recently spoke at a Toastmasters meeting, and was criticized for using “right?” I used it at the end of a couple of sentences, and got nods from the audience when I did. In other words, I got audience agreement, which was why I used it.

    So, in my opinion, it’s not a filler word. I used it with a purpose, and achieved my purpose. Hardly an um.

    Any opinions on this?

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:

      In general, I’d say that “Right?” is not a filler word, but rather a rhetorical question. When used in moderation, I think it is okay when used for this purpose. However, if used too much, it could be distracting.

  16. JadeDragon says:

    After um, seeing a truly horrific display of filler words by two very nervous guys in a video blog I er like came looking for information on how to reduce, you know, filler words… right?

    Very helpful blog (seriously)

  17. Sanjaya says:

    I agree to what the article says about audience forgiving a few filler words for a powerful message. I have a friend whose speech is always so well-structured that his few filler words do not bother us. However, filler words result unconsciously rather than with conscious intention. A good speaker should have every word under his or her control and, thus, must try to avoid using filler words.

  18. Joanna says:

    I don’t think it is worth getting overworked up over occasional unwords, but overuse is a problem. I’ve heard speeches where every fourth or fifth word is um or yeah . Those speeches are very hard to listen to.

  19. Filler words, also known as verbal mazing in the speech pathology world, can serve a variety of purposes in communication. As mentioned, they often buy the speaker time to process their thoughts and/or what is being said to them. It can also be form of cluttering (a derivative of stuttering), marking a stumble of thought audibly. I have my students with fluency issues watch the local news for uhs, ums, and other disfluencies, because everyone does this to some extent!

  20. language barrow says:

    um….if kept to a minimum, uh….it’s ok. so…..think before you speak, and….you’ll get your message across. like….um,uh, that’s no too difficul is it?

  21. SMS says:

    As a listener, I’d argue that awkward pauses to avoid saying filler words diminish communication, as well. And I’m talking awkward pauses–not intentional pauses or silences. Listeners know the difference. I’ll take a few fillers over awkward pauses any day.

  22. Marcie says:

    I have closed out of telesminars and webinars because of the overuse of filler words. They are very distracting and a turn-off after a while.

  23. Rhea Sta Ana says:

    Thanks for sharing wonderful articles.

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