We all want to be our best selves in our spoken communication particularly when we need to connect with and impress others with our knowledge of a topic, present information persuasively, report on action taken or offer a cogent argument.
One of the key ways in which we may sabotage this objective is with our overuse of speech “fillers”.
Speech fillers fall into three categories:
- Filler Sounds such as um, ah, mm, er, so
- Filler Words such as okay, right, basically, actually, literally
- Filler Phrases such as “you know”, “I think that”, “what I’m trying to say is”
Filler sounds, words and phrases contribute nothing to speech and could be completely excluded without any loss in meaning. If you were writing a speech or an assignment you wouldn’t use them.
An occasional filler isn’t a problem. It seems that ‘fillers’ exist in many languages: Arabic, Spanish, Catalan, Bengali, Urdu, Punjabi, Turkish, Serbian, Welsh, Persian, and Icelandic. However it makes sense to minimize your use of fillers if they add nothing and weaken the impact of what you have to say. If your peers use the same ones you may feel that fillers don’t matter but when they become frequent and habitual in your speech, it is time to take action.
So are there common reasons why people use fillers? Fillers can signal a lack of preparation, or nervousness. A filler indicates a fear of silence, covers a momentary pause while you seek out the next word or serve as a placeholder if you pause in sentence and are concerned that others will cut in before you can complete it.
So if you suspect that you overuse fillers what can you do about it?
Step 1 — Assess how often you are using fillers. Are they sounds, words, phrases or a mix of these? In one or two minutes of speaking, which specific fillers are you using and how many times is each one used? Ask a friend to listen to you and provide feedback. Or video yourself.
Step 2 — Understand why you are using fillers. Is it a lack of verbal fluency, a lack of preparedness, anxiety, a discomfort with silence or simply a verbal tick?
Step 3 — Slow down. This helps as it becomes easier for your brain to keep up and makes small pauses less apparent and therefore more natural.
Step 4 — Embrace the pause. Replace the filler with silence. This will feel awkward at first, but be persistent.