If you’re like most people, you find it annoying when you’re listening to someone and every third word is some version of a “filler word” — um, ah, y’know, right, ok. You can’t help but notice every single one, it’s very distracting, and instead of listening to the speaker’s message you find yourself waiting for the next “um” or “y’know”.
Almost everyone finds that using filler words is an easy habit to slip into, particularly when speaking in front of an audience. Here are some tips and exercises to help you break that habit.
Training yourself to pause and breathe is the key to eliminating filler words. Pausing may feel uncomfortable at first, but pauses actually help your audience process your words. Our brains process information in milliseconds, but they do need brief intervals of time to take it in, evaluate it, and file it in an area of the brain where it can be recalled.
Pauses deepen understanding. Filler words simply distract from your message.
Pauses also give you time to gather and organize your own thoughts. Even if you feel like you’ve practiced until you could give this presentation in your sleep, part of your brain is evaluating your current surroundings, your audience, and how they are reacting to you. Your brain will also appreciate the chance to catch up with a pause.
There is typically a disparity between how you long you think your pauses are and how they seem to your audience. Don’t let comfort be your guide, because it will feel uncomfortable at first. Pauses will help you convey confidence and give your words more power.
Eventually, pausing will begin to feel natural. Here’s how to get to that “it feels natural” stage. (Spoiler alert: it involves lots of practice)
- Record yourself as you read aloud. When you reach a comma, insert a half-second pause. At periods, insert a 1 to 2 second pause. Extend the pause even longer for new paragraphs and sections. Remember to breathe during these pauses. Replay the reading exercise, noticing the effect of the pause. Once you feel comfortable, begin inserting pauses while talking about any subject extemporaneously.
- Practice your presentation. Every time you catch yourself using a filler word, stop and repeat your last sentence this time pausing and breathing where you had used the filler words.
- Practice with a friend and ask them to snap their fingers or ding a bell every time you use a filler word. You may want to ask them to do this at times when you aren’t practicing as well.
- Have someone record you while you are giving a presentation. Yes, it’s difficult to watch yourself, but the video is the most objective tool to identify your strengths and opportunity areas.
- Practice making eye contact with your listeners. This helps with pausing. A great way to do this is to set up some chairs before you practice a presentation and tape pictures of eyes to the chairs. Hold eye contact for one full sentence with each “set of eyes” before moving on to the next. Pause 1-2 seconds between sentences.
Schedule a little time every week to practice, and it won’t be long before those filler words are gone.
“The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”
– Mark Twain