by. Arwen Brunner

Overusing filler words such as "um", "ah", and "like" can distract your audience and diminish your professional credibility.  Once you become aware of this habit, you will then have the power to change it.

Whether it is a major presentation for a prospective client in a room full of people or a weekly Teams client call, being conscious of how you speak is of utmost importance when it comes to how you are being perceived professionally. If you are nervous, unprepared, or even distracted while speaking, you may unknowingly lean on the use of filler words. This unconscious habit affects how your listeners perceive you as a professional as well as their ability to be attentive. You do not want your audience to ‘tune out’ because it requires too much mental effort to follow your message.

Become Aware

The crucial first step in learning to stop this habit is becoming aware of it. One way to find out if you are overusing “ums” and “ahs” is to record yourself speaking.  An app called Speeko is a tool that you can use to record yourself.  It will keep track of how often you use filler words, as well as evaluate your pace and articulation.  Another option is to find someone, whether at work or at home, to listen to you while you present.  Consider them an accountability partner who will point out each time you use a filler word.  The goal is to help you become cognizant of how often you use these words. 

Recognize Patterns

With your newfound awareness of how often you use filler words, the next step is to identify which words you use the most and when.  Make a note of which words you utilize the majority of the time. Do you say “um”, “uh”, “like”, or “you know”? You may start every sentence with an “um” or an “ah”.  In that case, stop and force yourself to repeat the sentence again without using that word.  In some cases, you may find that you use a filler word before a difficult word in a sentence.  If that is your tendency, an easy solution is to simplify the sentence.  Using simple, more concise sentences will help you to avoid filler words as well as keep your message clear.

Embrace the Pause

Once you are aware of the frequency that you use filler words as well as which words you tend to use, you are then able to start to change this habit and introduce a new, more positive one: pausing. When a speaker chooses to be silent rather than saturating their speech with filler words, they are “embracing the pause” so to speak.  Pausing rather than using “um”, for example, allows you to collect your thoughts and calm your nerves if necessary.  When you “embrace the pause” you will appear self-assured and in control. On the other hand, the excessive use of filler words will make you seem unsure and unprepared.  At first, pausing will likely feel awkward and uncomfortable. However, with practice over time, it will begin to feel much more natural. In an online article written by Deborah Grayson Riegel, a Keynote Speaker and Leadership Consultant, she states that “Actively choosing to say nothing is a better alternative than filling the space with sound that doesn’t add to the content, or to your credibility”.

If you put these tips into practice, you will find yourself speaking more effectively and with more confidence.  Your message will be clear to your audience and they will be much more engaged in what you are saying.  It is a professional win all around!  There is power in pausing, so embrace it and see what it can do for you.