The secret to stopping your ‘ummms’

Share on Linkedin
(Credit: Alamy)
The unconscious utterings that are holding you back can be banished.

You've researched your topic, prepared your speech and dressed the part. But when it comes time to wow your audience, you can tell they are underwhelmed. Could the problem be filler words?

Phrases such as “um,” “like,” and “you know” are awkward to listen to and lack authority. Worse, those of us who use them are often considered ineloquent and perceived as less competent.

It creates the perception that you are unprepared.

“When you use [filler words] repeatedly and excessively it creates the perception that you are unprepared,” said Paula Statman, an Oakland, California-based speaking coach who often works with corporate clients after a promotion. But most people don’t even notice their own tendencies to speak with fillers or that it diminishes their communication style, she added.

But all is not lost. Experts say there are ways to remove such redundancies from your everyday speech and increase your verbal clarity.

(Credit: Alamy)

(Credit: Alamy)

Diagnose the problem

Don’t expect an easy fix. The process of using fewer filler words can take months. For one, many people don’t recognise that a word they are using is a filler and needs to be removed from a sentence. While most know not to say “um,” few recognise that even saying “right” or “you know” at the end of a sentence is also unnecessary.

Adding extra words to sentences often happens when you’re deep in thought, so it’s not easily recognisable in your own speech, say public speaking experts.

We are so comfortable with our own vocal tendencies that we often overlook them.

Unsure if you're guilty of this verbal no-no? To help diagnose the problem, ask a colleague or friend to clap when you use a filler word. The clapping method, which may seem a little strange at first, is a simple way to realise just how much most of us insert fillers into our speech. Done in a less formal environment, it can highlight how you use such phrases so you can be alert to them at other times when you need to be eliminate them, for example, from a more formal discussion.

“We are so comfortable with our own vocal tendencies that we often overlook them,” said Steven Cohen, assistant professor of communication at the University of Baltimore in the US.

Can't stop saying umm? (Credt: Alamy)

Can't stop saying umm? (Credt: Alamy)

A less conspicuous trick is to record yourself on your smartphone camera to help you analyse if, when and how much you use fillers in your speech. View the recording to identify the offending phrases and see how your facial expressions change as you are saying them. When uttering fillers, you may look confused or sound less confident than during other times of speech, said John Bates a Los Angeles-based leadership communications trainer whose corporate clients include NASA and Accenture.

Power pause

Most people use filler words to allow their speech to catch up to the thoughts in their head. So, instead, try to allow yourself a “powerful pause” of one or two seconds in your sentences, which can help achieve the same goal.

Stop speaking for a second or two as you take time think.

Rather than speaking with fillers while processing what you want to say, it’s more effective to stop speaking for a second or two as you take time think. “It is a matter of training yourself to tolerate a long pause and telling yourself that you will not lose people’s attention or respect,” Statman said. To listeners, pausing for a quick second or two can also be helpful because most people process information slower than speakers can say it, she added.

Even as you learn to pause, being “fully present” in a conversation by avoiding distractions can make it easier to speak more coherently, because you’re more focused on choosing the correct words, Bates said. That means avoiding distractions such as the buzz of a smartphone or browsing the internet. Stay entirely engaged in your words.

Public speaking jitters

Managing anxiety helps too. Acknowledge your nervousness prior to a meeting or conversation to prevent yourself from using fillers because of heightened stress levels. Focus on how your words will help your listeners rather than thinking about how you’re being perceived.

(Credit: Alamy)

(Credit: Alamy)

 “Notice you are going to be a little bit uptight and get your attention off yourself and onto your audience,” Bates said.

Learn to diagnose your own “filler word hotspots” to better anticipate the changes you need to make to your speech, Cohen said. Often, people use fillers at the beginning or end of a sentence or while transitioning from one thought to the next, he explained. Being especially mindful of your speech during your trouble spots can make it easier to avoid the traps of using fillers.

If you’re giving a presentation, fillers can especially creep up in the introduction, conclusion and any complex parts of the presentation. Rather than memorise your entire presentation, pay special attention to those parts. Being confident in your words will help reduce the use of fillers, Cohen explained. “The more we practice the more comfortable we are with the content,” he said.

“Like” for likes

But, it’s ok to utter fillers from time to time. Sometimes, using words such as “like” can help you build a connection with colleagues and make you seem more natural and less formal in your speech.

You want somebody to sound like they are in the moment.

Rather than eliminating filler words completely, Statman recommends phasing out about 90% of your filler words but keeping the rest, especially in more casual conversations with colleagues. “You want somebody to sound like they are in the moment and that kind of authenticity often invites filler phrases,” she said.

The process of learning to pause and speak more confidently without adding extra words can take years, said Lesley Stolz, head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation’s JLABS California, who has worked with Bates. While Stolz has spent 18 years on bettering her speech overall, fillers can be especially tricky, she finds.

During the early days of her career, she worked hard to remove fillers from rehearsed speeches, but wasn’t aware of how prevalent they were in internal conversations or during deal making. More recently she’s become more mindful of less formal places where they pop up.

“I negotiate deals and fillers really get in the way,” she said. “It takes constant reinforcement.”

To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, head over to our Facebook page, message us on Twitter or find us on LinkedIn.