Most of us use so-called filler words like “um”, “uh” and “er” occasionally. They can occur when we are trying to think of the next thing to say, or when we are nervous and our thoughts get ahead of our words, or sometimes even to signal that what we are about to say is important.
The problem with filler words is they can become crutches, making us appear hesitant, tentative and unsure (Tweet it!). In a New York Times interview , Lisa B. Marshall, author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker’s Guide to Success in Every Situation compared their use to that of vulgarity: Occasional use is acceptable but frequent use may make listeners think the speaker is lazy about language.
Marshall also says it matters when filler words occur. If they occur before a thought is expressed, the speaker is more likely to be perceived as lacking confidence or preparedness. If they occur in mid-thought, the speaker is judged less harshly. Also, speakers well known in their fields can get away with more filler words than can novices.
What to do to curtail fillers? Awareness is the first step. Then, don't be afraid to substitute silence. Said Ms. Marshall, “That might be awkward at first, but it is better to have a moment of quiet than a distracting ‘you know’ or ‘um.’”
We wholeheartedly agree that silence is an underutilized speaking tool. A few seconds of silence may seem long to a speaker at first, but the audience will not mind—in fact silence may add to power and dramatic impact.
What are the “filler words” you use as defaults? What happens when you try substituting a moment of silence instead? To join the conversation, click "comments" below.
If you would like to read more about creating a habit around masterful communication, check out our book: Be Quiet, Be Heard: The Paradox of Persuasion.
6/13/2017 11:31:09 am
In 1980 our salesmeeting had us do mock sales presentations to each other while they were being taped. I counted "UMM" by a senior salesman, and to this day a friend the "UMM" word 60 times. Kept track. Told him. He 100% disagreed with me until he listened. I agree, um, totally with your comment of using silence vs filler words.
6/14/2017 10:16:15 am
You are so welcome Greg -- and thanks for your reply. You identify an important point: Most people are completely unaware of theirs 'um count' until they see a video playback!
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