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How to stop using filler words

Posted by Shivali Anand

August 16, 2021    |     4-minute read (767 words)

We’ve all used meaningless filler sounds, words, or phrases — even lauded public speakers and international leaders. While it may be human nature to fall back on fillers as a matter of habit, if used too much they can undermine your authority and reduce listeners’ trust.

What are filler words?

To fill silence when we are speaking. we may use nonsensical utterances like um and huh; empty words like well and like; and pointless phrases like “I mean that” and “you see.” These forms of filler language don’t add value to what you are saying and risk losing listeners’ patience.

Filters detract from our message and give us the appearance of being unprofessional. The average listener assumes someone who frequently says “um” is anxious and unprepared, according to a study in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior.

In all languages, fillers are commonplace. Americans tend to choose fillers such as uh-huh and so-and-so, Israelis tend to use the filler ehhh, and Irish people tend to prefer em, for example.  They're often used to indicate that we're taking a break to consider what we are saying but plan to continue speaking.

The purpose of filler words

We employ fillers or "sound bridges" while speaking for a variety of reasons, including:

  • We’re searching for the correct term. In this situation, the filler is the sound of our decision-making process. The speaker communicates this to the listener by inserting the filler.
  • We’re discussing complex topics. Scholars think it is more challenging to communicate abstract concepts and that the amount of filler words we use increases accordingly. Fillers, also known as disfluencies, occur more often in social science lectures than in complex scientific lectures, humanities lectures having the most. Humanities professors employ filler sounds 4.76 times per 100 words, on average. In contrast, natural science professors use fillers 1.47 times per 100 words. 
  • We're unsure what to say. When presenters are confident in what they will say, they tend to use fewer fillers. When they aren’t sure, they use more fillers.
  • We sometimes need a placeholder. Fillers can communicate to the audience that we will continue to talk and to signal that we don’t want to be interrupted. 
How to avoid mindless filler language

Using fillers on occasion is entirely acceptable in everyday social conversation, as this type of speech is expected to be disfluent. You don't have to remove fillers altogether, but it's a good idea to limit their use in professional settings.

If you want to eliminate typical fillers, here are some tips:

Step 1. Identify the worst offenders: Pay attention to your filler sounds, words or phrases. Take note of those you use most frequently, and when. For example, monitor how frequently you begin sentences with an unneeded well or slide words such as into your speech. This will help you identify your filler patterns. Take note of other people's speech patterns too, to keep yourself on track.

Step 2. Identify the causes: Figure out what prompts your use of filler words. Maybe you give flawless presentations due to practice and preparation, but you exhibit disfluent patterns during Q&A sessions because you can’t prepare your responses ahead.

Finding out which situations make you more prone to relying on linguistic crutches can be very informative. You may go into a business meeting with the foresight to check yourself before phrases like well and so creep out of your mouth.

Step 3. Record yourself: You'll probably be surprised how often you use fillers. It's almost as if our brains have forgotten they exist. Try recording spontaneous talks in your spare time to reduce your dependency on commonly used crutch phrases. Try to ad-lib for five minutes on any topic you choose without using fluff or fillers.

Step 4. Ask a friend: Have someone you trust note how often you use fillers, both within and outside the workplace. Your awareness of your crutch phrases will give you a chance to correct it.

Step 5. Slow down: When people are enthusiastic or frightened, they tend to talk fast, and that makes us more apt to use verbal crutches. Slowing down your delivery gives you a change to forestall fillers. 

Step 6. Experiment with chunking: "Research has shown that when you lower your mental processing burden, you are more likely to enhance your fluency," writes communications pro Lisa B. Marshall in an essay about filler words. She advises avoiding beginning sentences with a prepositional phrase, using subject-predicate order for the majority of your phrases and eliminating words that are difficult for you to speak.

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