How to Stop Saying
Um, Uh, and Other Filler Words


This article is part of the 12 Days of Ask Six Minutes.
This event is over now, but you can send your questions anytime.

Filler words — including um and uh — are never written into a speech, and add nothing when a speaker utters them.

Yet these insidious verbal hiccups are ubiquitous, uttered by most speakers in most speeches every day.

Robin Hutchins writes:

I teach a college speech class. The most common struggle my students have is the use of filler words such as um and uh. Do you have a strategy that helps to omit filler words?

What can be done? Is it hopeless?

In this article, we examine why filler words have a negative impact on your effectiveness, and learn a five-step strategy for reducing them.

Um… What’s the Problem?

Want to learn more?
Read our previous article Are… um… Filler Words… ah… Okay? for expert opinions from authors and speaking bloggers.

Some people adopt a zero tolerance policy when it comes to filler words, believing that a few ruin the delivery and invalidate an otherwise solid speech.

I’m not one of those people. An occasional filler word does not trump passion and a great message. Furthermore, I’ve heard audience members comment that an occasional filler word makes the speaker seem human (and not robotic).

Nonetheless, speakers should strive to minimize filler words. They contribute nothing, and weaken your effectiveness as as a speaker in two primary ways:

  • Filler words represent verbal static that has to be filtered out by your audience. (It’s one of the communication barriers cited in a recent article by guest author Stacey Hanke.) Why say it if the audience has to immediately filter it out?
  • Repeated and excessive use of filler words weakens your credibility. It may be perceived as indicating lack of preparation, lack of knowledge, or lack of passion. All of these perceptions are bad for you.

Filler Sounds, Filler Words, and Filler Phrases

I’ve started this article using the collective term “filler words”, but this is really a convenient shorthand for three related speech fillers:

  • Filler Sounds — e.g. um, uh, ah, mm
  • Filler Words – e.g. basically, actually, literally
  • Filler Phrases – e.g. “I think that”, “you know”, “what I’m trying to say is”

All of these — and there are more in each category — contribute nothing and could be completely wiped from your vocal patterns without any loss in meaning.

[Note: There are cases where some of the words/phrases do convey meaning, but this is rare.]

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 of adequate 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?

Your Turn: What’s Your Opinion?

How would you answer Robin’s question? Do you have a strategy to stop using um’s and ah’s?

 

This is one of many public speaking articles featured on Six Minutes.
Subscribe to Six Minutes for free to receive future articles.

Comments icon25 Comments

  1. Phil Lynch says:

    Andrew
    This is a terrific breakdown of how to attack a common difficulty many speakers have. I agree with the power of the pause, as many filler words occur where in written form a full stop would occur.
    That being the case, I encourage my presentation skills students to think in complete sentences, rather than setting off to make their next point with no end in sight.
    My other suggestion to students is to those who use fillers in everyday speech to eliminate them in that context first. If you use fillers away from the speaker’s spotlight, you’re certainly not going to use them any less once that spotlight is turned on.

  2. Good article, Andrew.

    Your advice about P-a-u-s-i-n-g hits the bull’s eye.

    Pausing gives the audience time to absorb your message. Taking the temperature of your audience when you pause gives the speaker positive feedback and encourages more pausing.

    Watch a video of Steve Jobs for great examples of this.

    Thanks for the Post!

  3. Andrew, I agree with every word of this post! Embracing the pause is something I encourage my own clients to do. Not only does it allow the speaker time to think, it allows listeners time to grasp what has just been said. As a performer I learned that silence adds dramatic tension and actually INCREASES audience engagement, rather than reduce it, which is what people fear. YouTube is full of examples of great speakers like JFK, Martin Luther King Jr., Churchill – all masters of the pause. Bravo!

  4. Eugenia says:

    Excellent article, as usual, Andrew. I agree with all your points. Good reader comments, as well.

    The way I eliminated my “uh” habit, and it was a bad one, was to slap myself in the face every time I heard myself utter one. This was in private conversations with my husband. My results were very quick.

    I speak slowly, am not afraid of pauses, but unless my speech is very well practiced, the pregnant pauses are a problem.

    Someone once told me that she couldn’t think unless she was speaking. I thought this was very odd, but is it possible that (in a similar way) the deliberate elimination of fillers in some instances could cause a brain freeze that would not otherwise have occurred? Perhaps one’s focus becomes bifurcated–half of it is diverted to worrying about the pause getting longer. Or, you’re no longer “in the moment,” as they say. Part of your consciousness is outside looking at yourself and worried about what will happen.

  5. GordonG says:

    I have Parkinson’s, and one of the recommendations of my therapist is that I develop a number of “filler phrases” to use when I suddenly get to the point where my verbalising brain can’t keep up with my intents. So while I ahve always tried to delete “fillers’ I now find myself looking for them :-)
    G

  6. John says:

    Andrew,

    I agree with Phil Lynch 100% – aim to eliminate fillers in everyday speech. “Ya know” can be a major irritant.
    Several times a month I deal with young scientists and their presentation skills. For a few, the avoidance of fillwords is a struggle. But when they are rid of them, their credibility rises exponentially.
    At some Toastmasters Clubs (mine included), a bell is rung the first three times “uh” is uttered.
    For the good speakers, it’s a fun challenge, a sword of Damocles hanging over you.
    For the beginners, they sense how critical it is to be rid of it – particularly when after 15 seconds, the “uh” ration is exhausted.
    Thanks for the pointers.

  7. @dan_steer says:

    I think 4B is the best idea.

    My presentation skills participants seem to think that any silence or thinking from them is a sign of weakness. Not true.

    They also tend to elevate the audience into some kind of hierarchically superior god-like position (in their minds) and therefore even start to feel guilty and “passive-submissive” about making mistakes.

    I propose that they work on these negative self-fulfilling sabotaging thoughts. Very often, things improve when they simply stop putting themselves under Siuth pressure to perform.

    For the real tough cases, I might propose my father’s services as a hypnotist. I’m a believer that we can simply unprogramme the bad filler habit with auto-suggestion techniques…

    Great blog and excited to see a potentially strong source of ideas for my training participants. I’ll be checking back in regularly. Keep up the good work!

  8. JOIN TOASTMASTERS.
    Over the 42 years I have been a member, I have observed that almost 100% of the time, “filler sounds” SEEM TO SIMPLY DISAPPEAR from one’s speech (and other verbal interaction) after the fillers’ presences have been immediately,gently and
    tactfully pointed out by the speaker’s Evaluator after the speaker has spoken (prepared speech or spontaneously) four or five different times.

  9. I always tell my students: “Pausing is your friend.” It give the audience time to digest what you’ve said and it gives you a moment to collect your thoughts and take a breath so you don’t reach for filler words. Great article. Thanks!

  10. Great tips! When I taught a presentation course to college students, I always advised them to practice in front of a mirror, videotape themselves, and ask someone to watch them speak. I think this is the BEST tool to catch all the uhs, and ums, and likes in a speech.

  11. Ruth says:

    You can’t beat the immediate feedback of ringing a bell or some other indication every time you use a filler word. It’s pretty extreme, only for use during rehearsal or a Toastmasters meeting, but it works almost immediately and is effective for those struggling to reduce their fillers.

  12. R.Janaky says:

    I don’t think such filler words or phrases should pose a problem in non -formal communication context. Yes, if it is a formal context, i think we need to pause, be silent for a second or two and then continue our speech.

  13. Shauna says:

    I found this article very helpful! I am currently in school and I’m in a public speaking class, and I must say that I use filler words all the time. I am really going to try some of these techniques to improve my speeches.

  14. Hi Andrew… I wrote about this a while back, suggesting that fillers aren’t *automatically* bad. I’ve read some research (sorry, not to hand at the moment, I’m not in my office) suggesting that a filler word can *sometimes* be handy – it gives the audience time to assimilate what they’ve heard.

    Personally, I think a silent pause sounds classier thought! :)

  15. Emily says:

    I am an “um-er” and I spend most of my workday on the phone. My boss just approached me and asked if I realize how often I “um.” She knows that I am always looking to improve and was very kind about bringing this up. I have now challenged myself to stop umming. I have, in the course of just a few minutes, already caught myself in the middle of 6 ums. Let’s see if I can stop myself from umming people to boredom!

    1. MG says:

      Good for you, Emily. Awareness is essential. I admire both you and your boss for the positive way you are dealing with this.

  16. MG says:

    As a listener, I wish I could become more tolerant of stammaring and filler words. I judge the halting speaker as less intelligent and underprepared. When it’s TV hosts and experts being interviewed, I have to ask, “why don’t they get help for that if they’re speaking in public?” So, I have two questions. Do public speakers owe it to us listeners to get speech therapy? And is there hope for me developing more patience and ability to filter out the fillers?

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:

      Re: Do public speakers owe it to us listeners to get speech therapy?

      In exchange for a listener’s time commitment, I think speakers “owe” it to them to deliver _value_. A few um’s will not eliminate the value a speaker offers, so I don’t think speech therapy needs to be mandatory. While I suggest that speakers should strive to reduce filler words, I think most of us will realize the biggest impact by focussing on other areas (content formation; audience analysis; well-chosen stories/examples; etc).

      Re: And is there hope for me developing more patience and ability to filter out the fillers?

      I hope so! Filler words are never going to be eliminated entirely. Remember that filler words have many causes: lack of preparation, nerves, response to audience body language, stress, fatigue, and many others. If you judge speakers too harshly by dismissing them outright, you may be denying yourself the value of their wisdom, experience, and insights.

  17. Very impressive post, it deserve to enter in my top 5 bookmarks.
    I was suggesting this article to my associate because of his filler sounds, but reading more deeply, i’ve discovered the same problem in me, but with filler words instead of filler sounds…

    Thank you!

  18. Bob says:

    Very nice article. I once had a linguistics professor who taught me to be proud of my speech, not to taint it with uselessness. Your speech reflects your thoughts, be aware of both.

  19. cliff says:

    This article is spot on and very helpful especially about the importance of preparation. Thanks

  20. Dayna Elliott says:

    Try silently adding the phrase ‘thinking time’ to the end of a sentence and/or thought. – ‘Thinking Time’ – It can really help you introduce pauses while continuing to maintain a comfortable pace.

    Twitter: @dayna_k_elliott

  21. Jad says:

    Great article…spot on.. i believe the best way forward is preparation and rest… and one more thing i believe in case there is something that speakers do not know,,,, may simply say “I’ll get back to you with more details…”…

    Thank you for sharing

  22. Dennis says:

    Another useful approach, perhaps a step 6, is to use the AIDA model from marketing to assist in delivering impact while achieving conciseness. AIDA stands for attract attention, gain an interest, build desire, and cause an action. Practicing this type conciseness will help you prepare transitions between the few points you need to make and reduce filler, much to the delight of your audience. Consequently, your use of dramatic pause will be kept in check and your tempo, ability to hold audience attention, and build credibility will improve.

  23. Darrel says:

    Thanks for the tips on avoiding “Ahs’. Slowing down was an Ah-control technique I hadn’t heard about.
    By joining a local Toastmasters club, you will receive Ah-counting as part of the package!

    Thanks!

Tweets icon123 Tweets

Showing the most recent...

Image n/a

@smilingldsgirl @smilingldsgirl — Apr 4th, 2014

How to Stop Saying Um, Uh, and Other Filler Words http://t.co/ShGJQLqteg via @6minutes

Image n/a

@anahcraS @anahcraS — May 25th, 2014

It’s high time for me to learn to stop saying ahh’s and actually’s.This article helps: http://t.co/AMiBrkv8uj ! #fillerwords #skills

Image n/a

@steve__james @steve__james — Jun 11th, 2014

How to Stop Saying Um, Uh, and Other Filler Words (for Hagel & ilk [The Left] – http://t.co/H6wiN5HdQm @FoxNews @CNN #nervous? #lying? #tcot

Image n/a

@Sean4Coffey @Sean4Coffey — Jun 14th, 2014

How to Stop Saying Um, Uh, and Other Filler Words http://t.co/OPWcmDztg3 via @6minutes

Image n/a

@steve__james @steve__james — Jul 11th, 2014

How to Stop Saying Um, Uh, and Other Filler Words – http://t.co/H6wiN5HdQm #stopalready @FoxNews @CNN #tcot

Links icon5 Blog Links