Everyone uses filler words, like “um” and “ah”—from Kim Kardashian to Barack Obama. When we are speaking spontaneously, we probably use them every five seconds.
Filler words “appear in every language and every culture,” says Steven D. Cohen an assistant professor of Communication at the University of Baltimore. And although they have a “bad reputation” recent research suggests they may have benefits--aiding listener recall and comprehension. Filler words in moderation can be a tool for persuasion and influence. The secret is knowing which words to use, managing frequency, and consciously choosing where they occur in a sentence.
Cohen adds that any type of filler words used mid-sentence, are less noticeable than those used at the beginning or end. To eliminate the use of filler words at the start or end of a thought, or to cut down on their use significantly, Cohen recommends recruiting listeners to clap when you use a filler word so you can get into the habit of omitting them. His most salient tip, however, is replacing filler words with a pause. “A simple pause can have a dramatic impact on our filler word use and how other people perceive us.”
We want to hear: Do you notice when others use filler words? Do you mind? Do you feel you use them too much, and if so how have you tried to reduce this? 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
9/20/2016 11:40:25 am
Anyone familiar with the Toastmasters organization will be well acquainted with filler words and how they can interfere with effective communications. At a Toastmasters meeting, there is typically a member assigned to count each speakers ah's and um's and provide a report at the end of the meeting. This seems to be quite effective and the practice can be incorporated informally into any professional group interaction to help create awareness.
9/20/2016 06:00:21 pm
Yes Mike. When people are made aware of their disfluencies (ahs and umms) they are then able to reduce them. Hats off to Toastmasters for doing this!
9/20/2016 05:01:44 pm
Maybe I'm overly attentive or critical, but I am very aware of the "um" and "uh" fillers peppering public speaking and find that it grates on me. But, a big part of my life is public speaking and being with public speakers and I see the lack of such utterances a key mark of a professional speaker. I believe such a speaker attracts more respect and attention as speaking precisely is relative rare and highly regarded. I have a new city manager with whom I'm working and I am really aware of the filler words peppering her presentations. I will break down soon and mention it to her, hopefully keeping my relationship with her intact!
9/21/2016 12:52:01 pm
Thanks for this John. Given that you are a person who has coached more than a few city managers and public officials, you are in a position to offer this kind of important feedback. We have seen the move from fillers to fluency in 2 steps: 1) Notice it's happening. This means having a trusted person indicate through clinking of a glass, or some other sign, that the filler has occurred. This is crucial because most people don't hear their own disfluencies. 2) Become comfortable with silence until the next word comes into mind and then out of mouth. Having a person like you coach in an off-stage practice situation is a huge gift.
9/20/2016 05:55:09 pm
I notice the filler words when the speaker wanders and doesn't get to the point. I think there is a point when using filler words detracts from your message. Listeners can ignore most of these ums and ahs unless they become too much of the presentation.
9/21/2016 12:55:19 pm
True, Sonia. When a person wanders about a topic without direction or conscious purpose these fillers happen more often. Not sure how many of these ahs and ums listeners are wiling to ignore before losing focus themselves.
1/2/2017 11:18:39 am
35 years ago while video taping 7 of the salesmen giving similar presentations I counted 100 um um um. The salesman who I respected alot had no idea he was saying that many filler words. My challege was to not offend him but encourge his behavior. It worked for me and he. I have other faults in communication but not um um um!
1/3/2017 02:54:38 pm
Thanks for this, Greg. What did you do to make this person aware of his fillers in a way that he could fully embrace?
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