I’m in a PhD program with some outstanding professionals, all of whom have their own areas of expertise: law, film, teaching, and then there’s mine, public speaking. I got a text from one of my academic colleagues this morning.

Do you have any tips to avoid saying “um” or “like” during presentations?

Since that is a common question and a prevalent worry for anyone who has to speak in front of an audience, I thought I’d share my response with you. Let’s look at why we use filler words and three ways to reduce them.

What Are Filler Words?

Filler words are sounds, words, or phrases that we insert into speech which are basically devoid of meaning in and of themselves. But in most communication scenarios, these filler words play an important role. In everyday conversation, we use filler words often. Linguist Mark Liberman found about 1 in every 60 words is either “um” or “uh.” When we aren’t on stage, we often use filler words to signal that we aren’t done talking yet. It’s called “turn taking.” Filler words are a way to “tell” the other communicator(s) that we wish to continue our turn to talk. When we end a phrase and are thinking of something else to say, we fill that silence with a word like “so” or a sound like “um” so that the other person doesn’t jump in and start talking.

So we have a habit of using filler words to help conversation flow more smoothly from person to person. However, when we present, the context dictates that it is the speaker’s turn as long as she is up front. There isn’t the need for the back-and-forth. But because the large portion of our communication is more like conversation than like presenting, we have trouble removing these turn-taking markers from our speech in the more formal context of speaking.

It’s difficult to break this conversational habit, but it’s possible. Here are three things that might help:

1. Stop Obsessing

Saying “um” during a presentation has become a bit of an obsession. For some strange reason, we’ve chosen to focus on this one specific issue and have given it more power than it, perhaps, deserves. But here’s the good news.

Despite what you might think, an occasional filler word won’t seriously harm your credibility or derail your presentation. Because they are so prevalent in everyday conversation, your audience probably won’t even notice just a few. However, if they become more frequent, they can become distracting. So reframe how you think about them. Instead of aiming to wipe them out completely, at first just reduce your usage of them. Keep gradually reducing filler words until they are nearly nonexistent.

2. Be Aware

Most everyone has one or two filler words that are their go-to for filling in the space. You may already know what yours is, but if you don’t, record yourself speaking or ask those who frequently hear you present.

Some of the more common filler words are: um, ah, okay, like, so, you know, I mean, and anyway. But yours might be something different. Just look for sounds, words, or phrases that pop up when you are thinking or transitioning. They will typically be “extra” words and won’t have inherent meaning. When you know what your signature filler words are, you can start to notice and remove them more intentionally.

3. Get Comfortable with Silence

Aside from helping with conversational turn-taking, filler words serve another purpose, specifically when we are presenting. They fill up the silence (hence the name). Filler words most often come up when we are transitioning or thinking. And because we have the notion that silence during speeches is bad, we seek to fill that silence with words.

And yet, a speaker can’t just plow through a presentation without taking a breath or stopping to think at times. But learning to pause in silence can both help us to reduce filler words and benefit our presentations. In an article in Psychology Today, Dr. Alex Lickerman says, “I’d only thought about silence as something to be enjoyed in solitude and avoided in the presence of others. Now I think about it as a tool I can use to make myself more effective.” That means we can trade in something distracting, or at the very least empty, for a useful tool.

Getting rid of filler words is really a matter of breaking a conversational habit and learning to replace unnecessary words with silent pauses. Like many things in public speaking, it takes intentionality, practice, and time to reduce the amount of filler words in your presentations. But it can most definitely be done.

At Ethos3, we base all of our presentation training tips on science and theory. Ready to learn more about how to master the art of presenting?

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