Fillers – how to avoid saying um and er

  • Nadine Dereza
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It’s, um, like, y’know?

Every eye is on you, the microphone is live, and the stage lights are so bright, you can’t see beyond the first line of the audience. But you can see the floor manager twirling their finger in the little circle that the world over means ‘you’re going to have to fill for a bit.’ Whoever was supposed to be coming on from stage left hasn’t – so you’ve got a couple of minutes to busk.

‘Uhm… Right. OK,’ you say. ‘Er…’

You don’t need to be under this sort of pressure to drop a filler word (or six) into your speech. Filler words fill the gap between the sort of beautiful grammatically correct language you (hopefully) get on a page and everyday human communication. It’s not exactly right to say that they don’t add anything to what you’re saying, though most of them should be avoided if you’re speaking in public and want to have gravitas.

As well as the familiar ‘um’ and ‘er’, filler words include ‘innit’, ‘like’, and ‘y’know’. ‘Basically,’ is usually mis-used, ‘I’m not being funny’ is an entire filler phrase and nobody in interviews seems to say ‘no’, opting instead for the repetitive ‘no, no, no’ which feels strangely less emphatic than a straight ‘no’. If you hadn’t spotted that last one, we’re sorry to have got you wise to it, as you’ll soon find it as irritating as we do.

If you’re making a habit of using filler words and wish to do something about it, know your enemy, and be aware of the verbal ticks you are prone to using. Not all fillers are the same; but often what they communicate is a lack of confidence about what is currently or about to come out of the speaker’s mouth. Here are three quick things you can do to avoid them:

1 Limit distractions

The more you focus on what is coming out of your mouth, the less likely you are to use unconscious filler words. At conferences and corporate dinners, it’s usually the case that the audience will be asked to switch their phones to silent, and waiting staff don’t clear plates while a speaker is on stage.

One major distraction can be that out-of-body self-consciousness feeling you get when you’re anxious about speaking. It’s an alarming, disconnected sensation that you’re out of control, with your mouth on autopilot. Pause, breathe, take a sip of water and be present.

2 Free your constraints

Let your hands do some of the talking. If filler words are sometimes used as a cushion, and you reduce yourself to nothing but your words, you will probably ‘um’ and ‘er’ a lot more than if you give your body language a bit more rein. Release your grip on the podium, get your hands out of your pockets, move around a bit.

3 Tell stories

If you have an abstract idea, put it in a practical example. Audiences latch on to stories, and if it’s a good one, will be less likely to notice the filler words: the gingerbread house and wicked step-mother are more important than the ‘y’know’s.

If your speech is in blocks (open with a quote, example A, example B, etc.), the filler words will get into the transitions between the elements. Rather than practicing the blocks, practice the transitions.

Being able to speak without filler words might be something you aim at rather than achieve flawlessly – and occasionally, a well-placed ‘um’ does communicate something useful. Be positive; audiences can be very forgiving – and the best way of getting on their side is to ensure that what you are saying is interesting, useful or entertaining – so good, in fact, that they don’t notice the, er… Y’know. Fillers, innit?

If you’ve found this blog useful, watch this space: we are putting the finishing touches to a book on public speaking featuring practical tips, tricks and techniques. Whether you’re presenting to colleagues or appearing on TV, it’s an indispensable guide to wowing an audience.

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