How to Stop Saying “Um,” “Ah,” and “You Know”
A few lucky people are blessed with the gift of gab. They have the ability to speak confidently and fluently, without any hesitation.
If you are like most people, however, words like “ah,” “um,” “so,” “I mean,” “you know,” “like” and “well” are probably a common part of your vocabulary. These words are commonly referred to as filler words.
When most of us get rattled while speaking – whether we are distracted, nervous, or not sure of what to say next – we rely on filler words to cover for us while we try to compose ourselves.
This might happen when you are asked to make a presentation without any preparation, when someone asks you a tough question, or when trying to think up of something to support your argument.
Using these filler words gives us a moment to compose ourselves and collect our thoughts before going on with our speech.
Sometimes, they can also be used to signal the audience to be attentive to whatever is coming next.
When used sparingly, there is nothing wrong with filler words.
However, when they become overused, they turn to crutches or disfluencies that take away from our message and make us less credible.
So, how often should you use filler words in your speeches and conversations, and how much is too much?
According to a research by a people science firm known as Quantified Communications, which incorporated behavioral science, data, and artificial intelligence, the ideal frequency of filler words is about one filler word every minute.
Unfortunately, most of us are nowhere near this optimum frequency.
The average speaker uses a filler word every twelve seconds, which is about five filler words per minute.
WHY DO WE USE FILLER WORDS?
If filler words detract our audience from our message and make us less credible, why do we use them in the first place?
There are a number of explanations as to why we use filler words.
The first one is that from an early age, most of us have been conditioned to reply to questions immediately.
When most of our parents asked us questions when we were children, they made it clear that they expected an answer right away.
Hesitating before answering was seen as a sign of disrespect and could lead to negative consequences.
As a result, most of us got accustomed to the need to reply immediately we are spoken to.
Therefore, when we have to think of something before responding to someone, we use filler words to fill verbalize our hesitation as we figure out what to say, because we have been conditioned to always fill the void.
The second explanation as to why we use filler words is that some people believe that these words make us sound more “natural” or “real,” especially when giving speeches. Linguist Michael Erard has even written a book on this, which is aptly titled Um: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean.
However, just because filler words are a common part of everyday language does not really mean that they make you sound “real” when delivering a speech.
On the contrary, they take away from your message.
In normal, day-to-day conversation when we are not on stage, filler words are also a great way to let the other party know that we are not done talking yet.
They enhance what is referred to as turn taking.
In a conversation with another person, a pause might be interpreted as a signal to the other person that it is their turn to talk.
However, if you are just collecting your thoughts and aren’t done talking yet, filling the void with a filler word notifies the other person that you still want to continue to talk.
However, when on stage, since no one will take over if you pause, there is no point in using these filler words.
Filler words commonly appear in two places: just before one makes a statement, and in between ideas.
For instance, when someone asks you a question, you might say “uh” or “um” instinctively before you make a statement to respond to their question.
After you are done expressing your idea, you might once again turn to a filler word to cover the void as you figure out what idea to express next.
WHAT EXACTLY IS THE PROBLEM WITH FILLER WORDS?
We have mentioned that filler words make you less credible and take away from your message.
Perhaps, you have even been to a speech where you found it hard to pay attention to the speaker because they had a filler word in each of their sentences.
But what exactly is it about filler words that makes them affect the audience’s experience?
Quantified Communications tried to identify how much people rely on filler words, and the ways through which these words affect their audiences’ perception of their message.
In the research, they analyzed over 4000 samples of spoken communication.
They found out three critical ways through which the use of too many fillers negatively influences the perception of a message by audiences.
- Keeping your audience engaged is a crucial factor if you want to effectively get your message across. However, when you use too many fillers, they get in the way of what you are trying to say, which in turn makes the audience bored, disengaged, and inattentive.
- When you talk to a group of people, they want to believe that you are speaking and acting naturally, the same way you would in a one on one conversation with an acquaintance. This is what makes you more credible. While filler words are commonly used in casual conversations, using too many of them when giving a speech makes you sound distracted and nervous instead of authentic, which in turn makes your message less credible.
- If you want your message to be persuasive and get your audience to buy into what you are saying, you need to make your message clear, easy to follow, and logical. Here’s the problem however; when you use too much filter words, this means that your audience has to spend a lot of cognitive effort filtering through the filter words to get to the core of your message. Unfortunately, your audience might not be willing to put in all this extra cognitive effort. Therefore, many of them will zone out of your speech and opt for something that is less cognitively demanding, such as fantasizing about the upcoming holiday.
HOW TO ELIMINATE FILLER WORDS FROM YOUR SPEECH
Having seen how filler words affect your speech and a message, it is clear why you should try as much as possible to eliminate these words from your speech.
The good news is that this is something that can be done. Below, let’s take a look at some tips on how to stop using words like “um,” “ah,” and “you know” when speaking.
Gain Awareness About the Problem
A lot of people use filler words, but many of them are not even aware that they do. It’s almost as if you mind doesn’t even register them.
This is because your mind knows that they do not add any value to your speech. All you need to do now is to get your mouth in alignment with your mind.
To do this, you need to gain awareness about your usage of these words. You cannot change any habit if you are not aware of the habit in the first place.
Therefore, you need to identify which filler words you tend to use frequently, and how you use them.
The easiest way of doing this is to videotape yourself while giving a mock speech or to go through a transcript of some talks you gave recently.
As you go through the speech, look out for any filler words in your speech.
Below are some of the sounds, words, and phrases you should watch out for.
Once you become of the aware of the filler words you frequently rely on, you’ll start noticing when you use them in your day to day communication.
To make yourself even more aware of how much you use these words every day, pair them with some action.
For instance, every time you catch yourself using one of these words, do something such as tapping your leg or snapping a rubber band on your wrist.
Alternatively, you can ask someone close to you, such as a friend or family member to monitor you and do something like clapping every time you use a filler word.
Identify Your Triggers
Once you start becoming aware of the different instances when you tend to use filler words, the next thing you need to do is to figure out what triggers your use of these words.
You might notice that you are fairly composed when giving a presentation you had prepared well for, but then these filler words crop up immediately you get to the spontaneous Q&A session.
Since there is no way to prepare for the random questions from your audience, this shows that you use these words to fill the void as you try to find the right words to respond to the questions.
Alternative, you might notice that you tend to use these filler words when you feel like you are under pressure to impress, for instance when you are talking to someone superior to you at work, when chatting with your date, or even when talking to new people during social events.
In this case, the reason behind using these words is anxiety and nervousness.
While it is impossible to prepare in advance for all the situations where these filler words might bubble to the surface, being aware of the kind of situations that trigger this words can make it easier for you to eliminate the habit.
For instance, if you tend to use these words when meeting new people, just before heading into a social gathering, you can make a mental note to yourself to try and minimize their use.
Commit to Dropping These Words
Like with any other habit, the key to quitting or changing is to make a commitment to yourself to drop the habit.
Now that you are aware of which filler words you tend to use and the situations in which you are more likely to use them, make a commitment to start watching your speech more closely.
Anytime you find one of these words almost coming out of your mouth, just stop. Don’t say anything. This ties very closely with the next point.
Stopping mid-sentence just before you use a filler word might seem awkward to you, so the best way to get used to this is to practice.
Get a video recorder and record yourself talking about something, such as how your day has been. Anytime you are about to use a filler word, just stop.
As you practice, sometimes these words will come out before you can catch yourself. If this happens, just backtrack and repeat your previous sentence, this time taking care not to include the filler word.
The more you practice, the easier it will become for you to eliminate them from your speech.
Embrace the Pause
The most effective way of eliminating filler words from your conversations and speeches is to replace them with pauses.
This point is closely related to the previous one, where I asked you to stop whenever you realize you are about to use a filler word.
Pauses are an essential part of communication. According to a research carried out by Estelle Campione and Jean Veronis, there are three kinds of pauses that commonly appear in conversational speech.
These are the short pauses, lasting about 0.20 seconds, medium pauses, which are about 0.60 seconds, and long pauses, which are longer than a second.
If you look at the speeches of some of the greatest public speakers in the world, you will notice that they often have pauses lasting two to three seconds, and sometimes even longer. This shows that pauses are an integral part of great speeches.
While the greatest speakers use pauses frequently, the average speaker pauses only about 3.5 times per minute, which is nowhere near enough.
However, it is easy to see why the average speaker makes very few pauses.
Embracing pauses is not a very easy thing to do.
For the average speaker, even a very brief pause feels like a period of endless silence.
This can be attributed to the fact that the brain is a lot faster than the mouth. In other words, we think a lot faster than we speak.
According to the research by Quantified Communications, the average person speaks between 125 and 150 words per minute.
On the other hand, our minds are capable of processing about 400 words per minute, according to researchers from Missouri University. For some people, this can even go up to 1,500 words per minute.
Owing to this difference between the rate at which you think and the rate at which you say out the words, your perception of time is often warped when you are giving a speech.
This is why a one second pause in your speech feels like an eternity in your mind.
However, since the audience cannot see the words as they unfold in your mind, to them the short pause is just that – a short pause.
Even though it might be a bit hard at first, using pauses in your speech will make you come across as calm, collected, and confident.
In addition, pauses also have the following benefits:
- They give you time to collect your thoughts: If you were talking about something and realize that you have lost your train of thought, you can simply pause as you recollect your thoughts. Provided you do not make the pause excessively long (don’t exceed five seconds), it will not impact the delivery of your speech.
- Pauses can calm your nerves: If you are the kind of person who has a fear of public speaking (which is most people), taking a pause can help you deal with nervousness. Whenever you find yourself getting rattled in the middle of a speech, just pause briefly and take a deep breath. This is enough to get you back on track. However, do not make the deep breath obvious or audible.
- They help you to build suspense: While pauses are commonly used as a defensive tactic to help you when you get rattled, they don’t always have to be. Sometimes, when used strategically, pauses can help you to emphasize a point, create suspense before delivering a bombshell, or give your audience time to absorb something important you just said.
As you have seen, pauses play some of the roles played by filler words, such as giving you time to collect yourself and think about what to say next.
Unlike filler words, however, which make you look like you don’t know what to say next, pauses make you appear confident and in control.
Whereas filler words make you come across as thoughtless, pauses make you appear more thoughtful.
Same situation, different approaches, totally different outcomes. In addition, pauses can help you pace yourself, especially if you are the kind of person who tends to talk fast when nervous.
Therefore, the next time you don’t know what to say next, or when someone asks you a question, instead of using words such as “um,” “ah,” and “you know” to fill the void, just take a pause, think about what to say and then give a response.
Pre-Plan Your Transitions
We already saw earlier that one of the places where we tend to use filler words is during transitions from one idea to another.
It lets your audience know that you are not done speaking and are gathering your thoughts before moving on to the next point.
However, since we saw that these filler words negatively impact how the audience interprets your message, the best alternative is to pre-plan some ready transitions that you’ll use to move from one idea to another.
Examples of such transitions include “Moving on to…,” or “Let’s switch to…,”
The more prepared you are with these ready transitions, and the more you practice using them, the less likely you are to default to using filler words when moving from one idea to the next.
Talking at a slower pace can also reduce your dependence on filler words.
This is because by slowing down, you are giving yourself more time to think about your ideas before saying them aloud.
If you talk too fast, there is a high chance that you might get tongue-tied, especially if your speech was not pre-planned.
Of course, I don’t mean that you should slow down your speech completely to the point where it becomes obvious and unnatural.
Even a slight reduction in speed will reduce the likelihood of using the um’s and ah’s.
Aside from reducing your dependency on filler words, slowing down will make you sound more confident and make it easier for your audience to understand you.
When using this tip, it is important to be realistic about the amount of time you have and the amount of material you need to cover.
Having so much material to cover within a short time might force you to talk faster, which will only ruin your presentation.
Therefore, think of the amount of time you have when preparing your speech.
Prepare and Practice
Finally, it is very important to prepare adequately before giving a speech.
We have already seen that nervousness and anxiety is one of the biggest reasons why people tend to overuse filler words.
If you go to a presentation or talk without adequate preparation, you are more likely to feel nervous, speak quickly, forget what you are supposed to say next, and so on.
This is the perfect recipe for the excessive use of filler words.
To avoid this, take enough time to prepare for your speech.
According to Sarah Weber, one should practice for at least one hour for every minute of their speech or presentation.
If this seems too extreme, you should practice your speech or presentation at least three times before stepping on the stage.
While practicing is very important, it is also advisable not to rely on memorizing your script.
The problem with memorizing a script is that in the event you lose your place, you’ll be completely lost, which means you are more likely to resort to filler words as you try to figure out where you are and what to say next.
Filler words like “ah,” “er,” “uh,” and “um” are a common part of casual conversations, and when used sparingly in a speech or presentation, they can be a great way to give yourself a moment to recollect your thoughts or catch your breath, make you more relatable to your audience, and emphasize what you are saying.
When used excessively, however, they become crutch words that take away from your message and hurt your credibility.
Therefore, you should try as much as possible to eliminate them from your speeches.
While this might be a difficult thing to do if using these words is a habit you are already used to, the tips shared in this article will help you to stop this habit.
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