What do you say when you don’t know what to say?  Hopefully, nothing. Unfortunately, most of us tend to want to fill the gaps with what are known as “filler words.” Those words can be, you know, ahh, umm, like, some of the most distracting verbiage we must endure.  Do you know what your filler words are and how to avoid using them?

I’ve watched as the professional athlete or coach launches an avalanche of “you knows” during a post-game interview. I endured a presentation from a Statewide nonprofit leader who punctuated important data with “umm,” “so,” and several other fillers. A five-minute video presentation from another nonprofit leader contained at least one filler word every 15 seconds.  Really?

So, you may say, who cares? You should! These useless additions are more than distractors from your topic. They also reflect on your ability to present a concise, professional, well-spoken message. If you can’t handle a simple verbal expression do you think they’ll be comfortable with your ability to handle that new job or care for their business, donation, or loved one? Filler words are simply not necessary but can be hard to break without some effort. Try these tools to help in the quest.

Listen

One of the biggest problems with filler words is that as a presenter, interviewee, or speaker, we may not even be aware we are using them. Take a minute to really listen to yourself on video or audio, when it is a more “free form” conversation. Fillers normally come about when you are “constructing” your response on the fly and “making it up” as you go. So, if you don’t have that kind of recording be sure to get one. You may be surprised at the result.

If you have a good friend or spouse in an audience, give them the “permission” to critique and keep track.  You don’t need them to be concerned about structure or content, just record the number of fillers you use.  Then, listen to their analysis and decide to act if you used more than one; we’ll give you just that one.

Observe

Next time you can observe an impromptu interview or presentation, keep you own mental scorecard and see how it impacts your understanding when it breaks your focus.  I will bet there is someone in your audience taking note and having the same experience.

I worked with a colleague once who had a habit of using specific language and it could be annoying.  There were at least two or three other colleagues in the room who started to keep track of their missteps.  Don’t let it be you they’re tracking!

Adapt

What if you decide you are one of the guilty ones, using too many fillers? You must learn to understand the origin of your flaw and adapt your way of thinking.

Filler words are generally used because we find ourselves uncomfortable in the silence.  We want to fill every possible moment with words.  It’s ironic, because in fact, a period of pause may be more impactful.  It will give your audience a chance to digest what you’ve said.  This is much better than having them derailed thinking, “I can’t believe they said, ‘you know’ again.”

The pause can also serve to emphasize your point. In fact, a longer pause may tell your audience, “think about the levity of what I just said.” Let the pause become your tool and your friend.

Plan

Obviously, the best way to avoid the filler words are to work from your notes, as in a speech. However, we don’t always have the luxury. Once you know your filler words you can plan to eliminate them from your vocabulary. Write down the problem words and decide you CAN NOT use those words. When it comes to where the temptation lies, take time, and take a breath instead, remembering, it’s okay to have some silence.

It will be tough, because we use them without thinking, and habits are hard to break. However, a well-planned focus on them will help.  You can also enlist the help of a coach (formal or not) who can hold you accountable.

Eliminating the filler words in your presentations will pay big dividends even though you might not know it. They are just one more distraction you can eliminate as a presenter, giving your message an even greater chance of getting through.  Let us face it, in today’s space, crowded with constant messages, we need every chance we can get.

 David J. Fry, CDT, MPS is President/CEO of Effective Advancement Strategies in Greensburg and consults with businesses and nonprofits throughout Indiana.  He may be contacted at strategies@etczone.com

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