Hari Patience-Davies shares how to stop using filler words like “er,” “ah” and “so.”

Everybody does it. Even people you’d think wouldn’t do it, do it. Even deaf people do it.

And by it, I mean have filler words and noises.

A filler noise is an unconscious sound you make while thinking of what you’re going to say next. Sometimes it’s a word – “so” and “basically” are frequently offenders. Sometimes it’s a noise such as “er”, “um” or “ah.” You don’t really mean to make the noise, it’s just something your mouth does while your brain is deciding which words to use.

And yes, everyone does it.

But with practise and concentration, you can stop.

Filler words are a natural part of conversation, and in an informal setting they’re not really a problem. But when we’re speaking to an audience – giving a presentation or leading a meeting – lots of filler words or noises can make you appear hesitant, even if you’re not feeling that at all.

The first step to getting rid of filler noises is to identify which filler noises or word you have. I will admit to having “so” as a filler word – I find I often use an elongated “soooooo” at the beginning of sentences while my brain decides on exactly what to say next.

I realised that “so” was my filler word when I watched video footage of myself presenting. It’s not a consistent habit, but it happens often enough to be a potential distraction to my audience. (As humans are pattern seeking creatures, if your filler word pop-ups frequently enough during a presentation, your audience may notice and start counting noises rather than listening to what you have to say.)

Once I had identified my filler word, the next step was to recognise when it’s happening. For me it’s often at the beginning of a sentence – but for others it can just as easily be in the middle of a sentence or while thinking how to answer a question.

If, like me, your filler words often occur at the beginning of sentences one of the best ways to break the habit is to focus on your breathing. If you can take conscious control of your breathing, you can make yourself take a deep breath for the second or so your brain needs to come up with the next sentence, rather than make your filler noise or say your filler word.

If your filler words are mostly in the middle of sentences then it’s worth doing a bit of analysis of your speaking patterns. While human beings are not robots, there may be patterns you can identify in where the filler words slip in.  Record yourself speaking and see what you can spot. What is often the case is that filler words appear when the speaker hasn’t mentally planned out the whole sentence. The filler words stand out because they’re appearing in the middle of the content – which creates the impression of hesitance.

To combat this, take a second or so when you start to speak and mentally plan out the entire sentence. Once you know all the words, say that sentence then take a pause to plan the next sentence, and so on. Initially this will feel somewhat stilted – it’s probably not your natural pattern of speech. But so long as you’re not taking an overly long time to plan your sentences out your audience will barely notice it.

What is overly long in this circumstance? A standard pause in a face to face presentation can generally last up to 4-8 seconds before an audience starts to fidget, so if you can keep your planning pause to 2-3 seconds you’ll be fine. And if 3 seconds feels too short, remember that studies show that we can talk to ourselves at an equivalent rate to speaking 4000 words a minute out loud (Chatter by Ethan Kross, page xxii) so 3 seconds can work out to 200 words!

Also remember that pauses always feel longer to the speaker than they do to the audience – and even if you start off by having pauses which are longer than ideal, the more you do this, the better you’ll get at it, and before long your pauses will be barely detectable from normal speech patterns.

A third way of breaking the filler words habit is to enlist a friendly colleague to help. This one is a bit of tough love so it’s not for everyone but it involves making yourself aware of filler words while you’re giving an actual speech or presentation.

Ask your friendly colleague to attend your presentation and give them a flag or piece of coloured cloth or paper – something you can see clearly from a distance away but won’t distract anyone else. Ask your colleague to position themselves at the back of the room, behind the rest of the audience, and then ask them to raise their flag, just high enough that you can see it every time you use a filler word or noise.

The point here is to make you as a speaker incredibly aware of the language you’re using while you are using it. Unless you have very good self-control a flag being lifted up and down at the back of the room will unnerve you – and that’s the point. We use filler words unconsciously, so the idea here is to ensure that every noise that comes out of your mouth does so consciously.

What should happen here is that while you may use filler word and noises a lot at the beginning of your speech or presentation, being aware of how often that’s happening (due to the flag) should help you stay in conscious control of your language and be able to cut out the fillers. It’s high risk – try and choose a real life but not career critical presentation to do this in for a first attempt – but I’ve found it can really help, so long as you don’t let the flag fluster you too much or forget what it was you wanted to say.


Image by Matt Botsford on Unsplash

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