Ummmmm…Kill the Fillers

In our work with business professionals, many who are technical or subject matter experts, we are asked over and over, how do I get rid of fillers? Ummm, ahhhh, so, well, and-um, you know….and other non-words can easily creep into our presentations, and nobody likes them.

What can you do? Here is what we tell our clients.

Be aware. You may not realize how many (or how few) fillers you use. We recommend recording your practice presentations or meetings, and then listening for fillers and pauses. Pauses=good. Fillers=not as good. You might hear other crutch words such as “you know” or “basically” that you will want to weed out. Awareness is the first step to reducing fillers and crutch words. On the other hand, you may be pleasantly surprised when you find out your speech is clearer that you thought.

Learn the difference between little fillers and big fillers. When you listen to someone speak, see if you can catch a few small fillers; they happen within sentences and they almost go unnoticed. Then listen for big fillers—they usually happen in between sentences and are longer and drawn out. Ummmmmmm. These are far more obvious. If you can reduce the big fillers, you will sound more confident and your little fillers won’t be a big deal.   

Don’t expect perfection. According to a recent article in Harvard Business Review, having one filler every minute is expected and makes us sound more natural and approachable. The average speaker uses about five fillers per minute, or one every twelve seconds! The good news is you can reduce the number of fillers, but the bad news is you probably won’t get rid of every filler. That is OK, and we recommend you don’t stress over the stray filler.

Train your brain. We think much faster than we speak, which leads us to disconnect from our words. We think ahead, we critique ourselves, we notice the reactions (or lack thereof) of our listeners…and lose track of what we are saying. Once you are aware that your mind is racing, you may be able to keep it focused only on what you are saying while you are saying it. As a bonus, your voice tends to be more expressive when you are focused.

Make friends with the pause. Probably the best thing you can do to reduce fillers is to become comfortable with pausing. Normal pauses are less than a second. Longer pauses, over one second, can be inserted for impact and drama. Watch other speakers; do they use pauses effectively? Perhaps you can become comfortable enough to do the same. Again, record and listen to see if the pauses feel too long but sound just right.

Be patient. We are always impressed at how some of the smallest changes can make the biggest difference in your communication style and presence. Sadly, reducing fillers doesn’t seem to be an instant fix. If you are serious about reducing fillers in your speech, make a concentrated effort for several months. Maybe a trusted colleague could give you feedback after every meeting, or maybe you will faithfully record your practice presentations, or rehearse in your car, patiently reducing the number of fillers that appear in your speech.

What can you commit to, right now? How will you reduce the number of fillers in your speech? Doing so will add polish and credibility, and….you don’t even have to be perfect at it.