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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