I remember when I first realized how annoying vocalized pauses can be.
I was sitting in a college course listening to student presentations, when I began counting the number of times each speaker said “um,” “uh,” or “you know.” These fillers were so distracting, that by the time each speech was over, I couldn’t tell you what it was about, but I could tell you how many vocalized pauses it contained.
Vocalized pauses, sometimes referred to as filler words, are the “uhs,” “ums,” “likes,” and “you knows,” that we utter when we speak when we should really be silent. What starts out as “filler” when we’re not sure what we’re going to say next, can quickly become a bad habit that is not only annoying to others who have to listen to it, but can negatively impact our professional image and credibility. Like any other bad habit, it takes effort to eliminate vocalized pauses, but it can be done with a little consistent effort and finding the technique that works best for you. Having taught public speaking at the college level and one-on-one to executives who wanted to improve their speaking skills, here are the techniques I have found that really work.
1. Record yourself! The first step in fixing a problem is identifying what it is and how bad it is. If you record yourself speaking, you’ll be able to identify the words or phrases you use as filler and determine how much of a problem they are. It wasn’t until this past year, when I was recording every presentation I gave, that I noticed that I use, “okay” as a transition a little too much. Until I recorded myself, I never knew I was saying it.
2. Think about what you’re going to say before you open your mouth. We use filler words because we start talking with a general idea of what we’re going to say, but haven’t thought about the specifics. Think about what you want to share, whether in a speech or one-on-one and plan how you’re going to share it.
3. Use natural pauses to gather your subsequent thoughts. Throughout a conversation, be sure to pause silently. As I always say in my workshops, if you were writing and you would place a period at the end of your sentence, when you’re speaking, you should always pause where the period would be. This 2-3 second pause allows you to think about what you’ll say next so you can say it clearly and without fillers. However, be cautious about using too many, totally silent pauses in your speaking, especially when they’re forced. Excessive, long pauses can be just as distracting as “ums” and can leave listeners wondering whether you’re done speaking or not.
4. Speak face-to-face when possible. Holding conversations face-to-face, especially important ones, or those that might make you uncomfortable, reduces the odds that you’ll use as many filler words. The “requirement” of eye contact with the listener helps keep speakers on track and reduces distractions. When conversations are held on the phone, the number of fillers usually goes up.
5. Practice speaking with a partner who will STOP you when you use a filler. Probably one of the most effective ways I’ve found to eliminate filler words is to practice speaking with a partner who will STOP you when you use a filler word. It doesn’t matter what you talk about, just ask the person to stop you if you use one of your most annoying filler words. If your partner hears the word, you must start the conversation (or speech) over from the beginning. This practice process will help slow you down and really get you thinking about what you want to say before you speak them out loud.
6. Don’t worry about trying to eliminate all fillers. The odds that you’ll never utter another filler word in your life are slim, so don’t worry about trying to eliminate all of them.
Psycholinguist Herbert Clark of Stanford University and Jean Fox Tree of the “Spontaneous Communication Lab” at University of California-Santa Cruz have spent years studying spontaneous conversations and speech to analyze the role of “ums” and “uhs” in language. Unlike previous researchers, they’ve concluded that filler words actually serve a useful role for listeners, including letting them know we’re not done speaking, that we’re trying to think of what to say next, or that we’re stuck and need help, prompting the listener to jump in and help us. However, these researchers agree that too many fillers can cause a problem in conversation. Therefore, the key is to reduce the number to the point that they’re not “excessive” and thus noticeable and distracting.
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Amy Castro is a Performance Communication expert, speaker, and trainer. She has taught and coached hundreds of people in all aspects of presentation skills- from content development to delivery skills. If you have questions about presentation skills, or would like help improving your presentations, contact her at Amy_Castro@ictstexas.com.