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So, like, how can I, um, clean up my speech?

Our brains don’t like silence, so they fill in the gaps with words. But these “filler words” can make us sound unsure. Do this to keep your credibility.

So, like, how can I, um, clean up my speech?
[Photo: Flickr user Gareth Halfacree]

Have you ever been in a meeting and heard the speaker say something like this: “We need to, um, focus our attention, on aah, this proposal.”

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We often use filler words–um, aah, so, like–when we’re trying to think of the next thing to say. Our brains don’t like silence, so it fills in the gap with words. The problem is, these “filler words” can make us sound, um, unsure and unprepared. Especially under high-stress situations, such as an important presentation or a job interview, when our words get ahead of our thoughts. Filling in the dead air with ums and ahhs can kill your credibility and detract from your message.

“If someone is using a lot of filler words, that becomes the focus,” says Katy Temple, communications coach and former Emmy award-winning sportscaster. Rather than listening to the message, the audience’s focus turns to the number of “ums” or “likes” the person uses. “You’ve gotten away from listening to the message to walking away from the conversation thinking, ‘Wow, that person says ‘like’ or ‘um’ a lot. That’s the opposite of what you want, as a presenter,” she says.

While some of us are aware that we use filler words, many of us would be shocked to find out how often we really use them.

Try these seven tips to eliminate filler words from your vocabulary.

1. Record your speech

The first step to reducing “ums”, “aahs,” and “likes” from your speech is to become aware of how often you use them. Record yourself during a phone conversation or in a meeting and analyze the recording afterwords, keeping track of how many filler words you used.

“The key is awareness,” says Temple. “Once you are aware that you’re using the filler words, you can start eliminating them.” Once you hear yourself saying “um” and “like,” you’ll start to notice when you’re about to use a filler word and can stop yourself before you do. So get out your phone the next time you’re in a meeting or doing a presentation and record yourself.

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2. Practice with everyday conversations

Once you’re aware you use filler words, make a conscious effort to reduce your use of them. You can practice this in your everyday conversation with a friend over lunch, or while you’re on the phone with your mother. Simply remind yourself that you’re going to try to get through the conversation without using filler words.

3. Prepare and practice out loud

Going into a presentation or a meeting unprepared is more likely to lead you to use filler words. Get comfortable with your material and familiar with the points that you want to make. Writing them down can help to remind you. If you are clear on the points you want to make, you can stop yourself once you’ve made them, rather than rambling on and using a ton of filler words while you collect your thoughts.

When rehearsing your speech or presentation, it’s important to practice saying it out loud. You’ll become aware of where you naturally want to inject filler words and can then work on eliminating them when it comes time for your speech.

4. Join a toastmasters’ club

A tried-and-true program for overcoming your fears of public speaking and improving your speech skills, Toastmasters can also help you eliminate your ums, aahs, and likes. Toastmasters assigns a grammarian to each meeting whose job is to record all the filler words used by speakers. Knowing that someone is listening for these words can help you to recognize them in your speech and take steps toward eliminating them.

Surrounding yourself with good speakers is also a great way to improve your speech. “We’re affected by our environment,” says Temple. “If your friends, family, or colleagues are using a lot of filler words, it’s easy to jump on the train.”

5. Silence is golden

We often use filler words because we are afraid of silence in our speech. We fear that if we stop talking, even for a microsecond, someone will think we are unsure about what we’re saying or will jump in and take over the conversation. Learning the art of the pause can not only make you sound more professional, but provides you a moment to gather your thoughts and helps the listener to catch up and let what you just said sink in. A well-timed pause can help you to capture the audience’s attention by creating a little suspense. When you feel a filler word coming on, substitute it with a split second of dead air. Don’t be afraid of the silence.

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6.Emphasize a key word

We often use filler words because our minds aren’t able to catch up with our words. While the pause is a great technique to let your mind catch up, you don’t want to overuse it. Presentation skills coach Michael Souveroff  says you can supplement the pause by stressing key words in the middle of a sentence. For example, if we stress the word “tax” in this sentence: “Our clients want to talk about the tax implications of these new policies,” the stress on the word gives our mind a chance to think about the words coming up next, and helps the audience to remember the key message.

7. Get nerves under control

It’s common to fill our speech with ums and aahs when we feel nervous. There are physiological and psychological factors at play when we’re put in an uncomfortable situation. To get nerves under control, take slow, deeper breaths before speaking, and avoid changing your normal physical behavior. “People often lock down their hands and will stop gesturing when they’re nervous,” says Souveroff. This will just create tension in your body and make you even more uncomfortable, which will only make the ums more frequent.

Whether you’re in a job interview, pitching your business, or simply having a conversation with a friend, reducing the “ums” in your speech will help improve your credibility and make for a more successful meeting.

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About the author

Lisa Evans is a freelance writer from Toronto who covers topics related to mental and physical health. She strives to help readers make small changes to their daily habits that have a profound and lasting impact on their productivity and overall job satisfaction.

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