It doesn't matter how elegantly your PowerPoint presentation flows, how artfully you can field difficult questions, or how perfectly balanced your mix of statistics and stories is. If you're filling your delivery with filler words like "um", "uh", "like", "right", "so" or "you know", you're wasting valuable air time, undermining your professional credibility, and giving your listeners multiple opportunities to tune out.
In my two decades as a presentation and communication skills coach and instructor, I've worked with hundreds of leaders from around the world who wrestle with filler words.
In the United States, "um", "uh" and "so" are among the most common. For my clients in Ireland, "em" seems to be the filler word of choice. For my Israeli clients, it's "ehhh", and for those who are native Chinese speakers, it's "??" (pronounced "zhège"). No matter what language you speak, chances are, you've developed a habit where you're unconsciously creating a "sound bridge" between ideas so that you don't lose your train of thought. And that habit is making you sound less polished, poised and professional than you want.
Recognizing that using filler words is indeed a habit is a critical first step to getting this behavior under control. In his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, author Charles Duhigg reminds us that we can't eliminate a habit--we can only change it for a better alternative. What's a better alternative than saying "like" every fifth word, or ending all of your sentences with "right?"
Actively choosing to say nothing is a better alternative than filling the space with sound that doesn't add to the content, or to your credibility. And pausing has additional benefits, including giving the audience time to process the information you're sharing, helping you pace yourself (especially if you tend to speed up when nervous), giving you a moment to catch your breath and get your thoughts in order.
The good news is that if you're using fillers in presentations, you're probably using them in everyday conversation. Why is that good news? Because it means you don't have to wait until your next formal presentation to get better at this. You can start today.
Despite the fact that filler words are varied and ubiquitous, my fix is relatively simple.
Here's a 4-week plan that has worked for hundreds of my clients to drop the fillers and fill the space with some much-needed silence:
Week 1: Find a Partner to Help Increase Awareness
Chances are, you're not aware of how often you're saying "um", "like" or "you know" because it's happening unconsciously. (Most of my clients have no idea how many fillers they are using until they listen to a recording of themselves.) This learning stage is known as "unconscious incompetence", and in order to move it from unconscious to conscious, you'll need a partner -- or two. Find someone at work, and perhaps someone at home, whom you ask to point out every single time you use a filler word. Record yourself and listen to it, tallying up how frequently you use filler words. The goal isn't to embarrass you. It's to help you hear what you're not yet hearing on your own.
Week 2: Catch Yourself as You Say It
The goal of week two is for you to hear yourself say "um" or "so" without anyone pointing it out to you. This learning stage is known as "conscious incompetence". This is the week where you say to yourself, "I just said 'uh'!" and "I just said it again!" and feel frustrated that you don't have it handled. That's exactly where you should be at this point - consciously aware of how often it's happening - and really ready for a change!
Week 3: Replace the Bad Habit with a Helpful One
After a week of hearing yourself use filler words, you're ready to stop yourself in your "um", "uh" or "right?" tracks and replace the sound with silence. In other words, you're ready to move into "conscious competence", where you're extremely aware of what you're doing right. The moment you hear (or even feel) yourself start to use a filler word, stop. Don't say another word or sound. Pause. Just pause. This will sound very odd to your ears, and it will sound less odd to your listener's ears (I promise!). Every single time you start to articulate a filler word, just stop talking. Your audience - and your future professional self--will thank you for it.
Week 4: Keep Practicing
While week three will feel like a start-stop-start process, week four will begin to feel a little more natural - and you'll want proof that you've improved. If you haven't burnt out your Week one partner, ask her for some feedback, comparing your speaking fluency to how you sounded three weeks ago. Record yourself again and listen to it, comparing tallies from week one. Celebrate your improvement, but be mindful of how easy it is to revert back if you don't stay on top of it. If you need more improvement, go back to week one or two.
After all of this practice, you may find yourself in the final stage of learning, "unconscious competence", where you don't even know that you've eliminated your filler words. You're just speaking with fluency and finesse. And the best way to know that you've gotten this handled? When someone comes up to you and asks you how you learned to become such a great speaker!