Imagine you’re telling a story to co-workers about a road trip you took a few years back. You set up the context of the trip including where you were going, why you were going there, and who was in the car with you. But as you list out the people in the car, you realize you can come up with two of the people, but not the third.
You pause to give your brain a chance to come up with the name of that third person. As you think, without realizing it, you let out an “umm…” for a good, full second. Then, when the name comes to you, you say it and move on with your story.
That “umm” is what we call a “verbal filler.” A verbal filler is a sound, word, or phrase that doesn’t mean anything in the context of what someone is saying. It simply “fills” in space, as the name implies.
Some examples of filler words include:
- You know
Most communicators have some awareness of the verbal fillers they or others use, and an understanding of how they can undercut the strength of how someone communicates if they’re overused. In other words, we all know we shouldn’t say “um.” But how do we stop ourselves from using verbal fillers? We’ll explore that in this blog post…
Why Do I Use Verbal Fillers?
Why is it most of us find verbal fillers peppering our speech—whether speaking in a casual setting or, more concerning, in a formal speech or presentation?
To some degree, it’s because we’re surrounded by people who use verbal fillers all the time. When you hear people use them all day, you’re pretty darn likely to use them yourself. We’re social animals and we get our cues, especially ones about language, from others. (If everyone around you said, “Roger that, tough guy?” after everything they said, you’d likely do the same.)
Think of the memories in your brain as existing in a massive file cabinet, somewhere north of your eyebrows. It’s a big file cabinet because it’s got a lot of memories in there. There’s a certain amount of organization to your file cabinet. You might have folders titled, “Lyrics to 1980s Sitcom Theme Songs,” “How to Make Red Velvet Cupcakes,” or “My Company’s Marketing Priorities.”
Some of these files are super easy to get to: the one that has your middle name in it, the one with your phone number, the one with your best bowling score (205). Others are harder to access. Our brains sometimes need a moment when they need to locate a hard to access file during conversation.
Picture a runner whose job it is to shuttle back and forth between your mouth and the file cabinet in your brain. That runner is usually super-fast. But, sometimes, the runner struggles to find the right file to get the information to your mouth.
When that runner needs an extra moment (anything longer than, say, a millisecond), our mouths feel the need to let our listeners know that runner may be a moment. So, we say “umm.”
But why? Why not just be silent? Because, in a conversational situation—whether we realize it or not—we’re subtly aware of the possibility that we’re going to be interrupted.
That “umm” is our mouth’s way of saying to our listeners, “Hey, I still get the stage here. I know I’m not saying the next thing you were expecting me to say right away, but I’ll be right back with that information. Just gimme a second. It’s NOT your turn to talk yet.”
Verbal fillers help us by holding the conversational floor and keeping it from being taken over by someone else while we think of the next thing we need to say.
When we’re giving a speech or a presentation, though, those verbal fillers are suddenly of no practical use to us. Imagine you’re giving a presentation and you need a moment to come up with the next thing you need to say…
You: “Our top three priorities for Q3 are lower costs, new product offerings, and, umm (runner flips through the file cabinet as fast as they can, searching frantically while realizing everyone’s looking at you, especially Clarence from Accounting who is kind of a jerk… then, the runner finds it, and runs back and hands the message to your mouth), faster shipping.”
That “umm” isn’t doing anything for you. Why? Because no one is going to interrupt you. Our brains aren’t aware of that, though.
We think that if we don’t say “umm” this is what will happen:
You: “Our top three priorities for Q3 are lower costs, new product offerings and…”
Clarence from Accounting: “Now that you’re done talking, I’d like to discuss payroll.”
You: “Uh, Clarence, I was about to say ‘faster shipping’ and then keep going with my presentation.”
Clarence from Accounting: “How was I supposed to know? You were quiet for a third of a second. So, anyway, let’s talk about payroll…”
No matter how big a jerk Clarence is, in that split second, he’s probably not really going to take over your meeting.
What Makes Verbal Fillers So Bad?
Okay, so using verbal fillers when giving a speech or presentation doesn’t actually accomplish anything purposeful. But besides being pointless, what’s wrong with them?
The reason verbal fillers get a (deservedly) bad rap is, when used repeatedly, they can accumulate and cause listeners to think (whether consciously or unconsciously) you don’t know what you’re saying.
One or two verbal fillers, every three minutes? Not a big deal. But one or two a minute? That can seriously undercut your credibility.
Imagine giving a presentation and it sounded like this:
You: “We… umm… have to decide sooner rather than later if we’re… uhh… going to purchase the upgrades because, y’know, it’s a big decision that will basically impact the whole business, so, umm… I think we should buy it and, uh—” (Clarence from Accounting gets up and walks out of the room.)
When Do Verbal Fillers Typically Happen?
One of the times people get the most tempted to drop in verbal fillers is when they’ve been asked a challenging question.
You: “So, that’s what I think we should do in Q3.”
Clarence from Accounting: “How does this take into account the fact that your team missed its numbers last quarter and that’s why we can’t afford the purchases you’re recommending?”
You: “Umm” x 100.
Know that most people revert to verbal fillers to fill in the space while they think either a) how to answer the question, b) how to leave the room with no one looking, or c) how much duct tape it would take to cover Clarence’s big mouth.
The best rule of thumb is to always allow for a nice, solid pause after being asked a hard question. Think (of course you need to think) but do so quietly. Don’t let your face show that you’re rattled, but don’t let verbal fillers tell your listeners you’re rattled either. Just…be…quiet…for a moment.
Then, once you have a good answer, start talking. And don’t start with “so” or “huh” or “umm.” Rather, if you need a slight filler, say, “That’s a great question…” This pause will let your audience know that you’re taking the time to seriously consider what they’ve asked, rather than word vomiting the first thing that comes to mind.
How Can I Prevent Using Verbal Fillers?
So, what can you do to prevent verbal fillers from ruining your credibility? We suggest these three steps…
Watch videos of yourself presenting
As you’re watching, note when you’re most likely to drop in verbal fillers. Of course, no one (except maybe Clarence from Accounting) likes to watch videos of themselves presenting. But only by doing so can we really get a sense of how often we’re using verbal fillers. Beware, though: if you read transcriptions of the audio of presentations you’ve given, many transcription services automatically cut verbal fillers! Be warned! Don’t get a false positive!
The best replacement for “um” or “uh” or “basically” is… nothing. Space. Just a little tiny drop of silence.
We’ll warn you, though: that silence will feel so long to you! You’ll be concerned your audience will think your brain has left the building. Not so. You have to push through this pausing gag reflex and pause away. When you’re trying to come up with the next thing to say and your runner needs to riffle through the cabinet, let the runner do their work in silence. It’ll be short, and it will keep those verbal fillers from creeping out.
This pause will also be refreshing to your audience, who is likely still processing what you just said.
Work at it
This won’t change right away. And, honestly, the more you think about it, the more frustrated you’ll get when you catch yourself using verbal fillers. That’s okay. Take your time. Give yourself some grace—everybody uses filler words but imagine how much you’ll shine when you’re one of the rare ones who doesn’t need to rely on these crutches.
Practice replacing with pauses and, when you forget, shake it off and try again. It’s okay. You’re in this for the long haul, not the short-term.
Are verbal fillers the worst delivery habit in the world? No. But they’re not great. If people notice your verbal fillers, they might not hear your idea—which makes it difficult to inspire others to act. So it’s a good idea to work at paring them back as best you can. And keep in mind, using verbal fillers doesn’t make you sound more “real” or “authentic” (we hear that pushback a lot). Do you ever hear someone speak without verbal fillers and think, “They’re so fake.” No. You don’t even notice it!
It’s hard to dump old habits, like using verbal fillers. But it’s worth the effort. Eventually, your listeners will appreciate the fact that you’re communicating more cleanly, even if they can’t put their finger on why. Heck, maybe even Clarence will notice.
Illustrated by Alexis Macias