🎤So…um…ya…aka filler words – why we use them, and how to minimize them!

So, I have, like, a lot to say about this topic. Like, so much. 

There is so much depth to this topic, as is shown in Michael Erard’s book entitled Um…Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean. That’s right, entire books have been written about the fact that I start almost every verbal sentence with “So…”

So, let’s first explore why we use filler words, verbal blunders, focal fillers, or, um, whatever you want to call them. 

OUR MINDS ARE WORKING FASTER THAN OUR MOUTHS

Here’s an equation:

Having a lot to say +
Having lots of passion +
A stressful situation 
= Fast mind and fast mouth. 

We may have practiced our verbiage to perfection for weeks. Yet, nothing compares to the adrenaline rush we get when in front of an audience big or small. This is natural for all speaking situations as our minds and bodies are trained to react to stressful social interactions in a flight, flight, or freeze response. In short, our minds and our mouths lock up with too much going on!

Sometimes it is not as complicated as that. Sometimes we are just working a problem out verbally. Brainstorming. Exploring. Thinking. Connecting. Of course, our brain is going to have false starts, double dribbles, and fouls. It is not that we are unintelligent or not dismissive of the subject. It is that our minds are not adequately trained in the current train of thought. 

WE ARE AFRAID OF UNCOMFORTABLE PAUSING

We tend to frame conversations like a ping-pong game. We want there to be consistent back and forth action. Too many breaks in the match lessen the experience for the players and the observers. What? Don’t you observe ping-pong games? What else could you be watching during quarantine? 

Another way to look at is two people holding a microphone, battling for their air time to talk in the conversation. We erroneously believe that if we pause for too long, the other person will scratch the mic from our hands before we get to drop our knowledge in a drop the mic type moment. 

EVERYBODY IS DOING IT!

Erard states in his book that “anyone who thinks or acts at the same time as they speak, especially under pressure, will blunder. Put a tape recorder in front of any of these [speakers], and you’ll trap disfluencies like lint in a clothes dryer.” 

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “You don’t know what I am thinking!” And you would be right. Did you know that common phrases we use in speaking can be quite distracting is an upcoming topic on this blog? 

But, I digress. 

If I was going to impose what I thought you were thinking, I would say that you would be thinking that you or someone you know never has verbal blunders. They are perfect. 

Well, um, even if they are not, like, using traditional filler words, they are still soooo using them. They just sound different. 

George Mahl, a Yale psychologist, spent most of his career studying filler words and found that there groups of disfluent speech: vocal fillers and sentence changers. 

Vocal fillers are just what we have been talking about; using um, like, uh, ah, yea, so, anyways and the such. As Erard explains: 

“Sentence changers are the people who burst ahead, confident, speaking in a fluid stream of words. If they don’t like the way the sentence is going, no problem – they rethink it and start over as fluidly. Even if there’s nothing wrong, they often rush to double back and dive into rephrasing as easily as they first phrased it.”

You know that thought you have when you are listening to someone speak, and you can’t quite follow their train of thought, even if it is free of filler words? That’s what’s happening. Some speakers will keep pressing into their ideas, still working out the lots to say + lots of passion + a stressful situation equation. They are just doing it with more words instead of fillers, and often using those words in a verbal loop-de-loop. 

GREAT. IF EVERYONE IS DOING IT, I CAN STOP WORRYING ABOUT IT.

Kinda.

Yes, the first step is releasing judgment upon yourself and other speakers. Vocal fillers and sentence changers are going to be present in nearly every presentation. But that’s not a reason not to actively work on them.

Noah Zandlan, CEO and Co-Founder of Quantified Communications, stated this Harvard Business Review article that “Unfortunately, filtering through crutch words to catch the important parts requires more cognitive effort than audiences are willing to put forth. So too many fillers will likely mean they’ll tune out in favor of an easier cognitive task —such as thinking about their to-do lists.”

That’s right. Like, listening to, um, too many filler words or possibly being adept at eliminating filler words in the sense and spirit of adding extra words to make sure that no one can catch verbal blunders, yet still seeming to appear intelligent and knowing exactly what we are saying and how we are saying it even though we are using too many words to say one minor thought can be a severe detriment to your message. (Editor’s note: Grammarly REALLY wanted me to revise that sentence, stating, “A General Audience might find this sentence hard to read.” If it was hard to read, it is also hard to listen to!). 

The goal, then, is not to totally eradicate filler words. That is unrealistic given our curious nature and our cognitive abilities to work through problems and experience ourselves and others in conversation. The goal is to be aware of and minimize these filler words. 

PUBLIC SPEAKING IS A SKILL, NOT A TASK

[Quickly stepping on my soapbox.]

Before I dive into my suggested activities, I would like you to buy into the notion that public speaking is a skill, not a task. 

If you register for a marathon (public speaking event) and you only train the two weeks before the race, there is a good chance you will underperform. Sure, there are some natural athletes (speakers) out there who will wake up perform well and call it a day. 

Yet, without designated training time, athletes (speakers) will always underperform. Make speaking skills part of your weekly professional development time, and you will be much better equipped to perform above and beyond the rest. 

[Quickly stepping off of my soapbox.]

ACTIVITY 1: GET YOUR ADRENALINE ACTIVE 

The best way for your mind to get used to stressful speaking situations is to put yourself in a stressful speaking situation. This is often difficult to simulate because we don’t always gather our friends for dinner, drinks, and silly speaking competitions unless you were part of the Arizona State University Speech and Debate team anytime between 2000-2012. Then, that practice was a regular part of your life. 

Here is my favorite activity to simulate stress: 

  • Go to Impromptu Topics Generator
  • Set a time for ONE minute. 
  • Hit the “Generate Impromptu Topics” button. 
  • Start talking. 
  • If you use a filler word, you are out. You get to start over. 

Doing this once a day will give your mind and body a sense of stress and start to train your fluency. Sometimes you will know A LOT about the topic, and your words will flow. Other times, you will just have to say words out loud to get through that dreaded 60 seconds. 

This is best done with friends or co-workers. It can be a great lunchtime break activity and even a happy hour activity. Yep, that’s what we ASU Speech members did with our happy hours most days. 

ACTIVITY 2: PRACTICE PAUSING 

I wish there was more complexity to this activity, but there is not. Start with the conversations where you feel the most comfort – family members, friends, close co-workers. Find people who will not be weirded out by slightly longer pauses in your speech. 

When you feel the urge to say um, ah, or if you find yourself using more words than necessary, simply pause. Breathe. Then go. Becoming comfortable with that space will increase your fluency and eventually decrease the time between thoughts. 

ACTIVITY 3: RECORD YOURSELF AND TRANSCRIBE!

Yes. I went there. And yes, it is terrifying. Ask someone close to you if you can record a conversation with them. Make the topic something complex. Talking about how sunny it is won’t really give your mind much of a challenge to put thoughts together. Record the conversation. Then (gulp) transcribe your words. Every one of them. Even your sounds. 

Having an awareness of how your brain works will open up your brain to shifting the way that it works. I know that is very Insception-like, but you will start to see changes in the way you think about how you talk. 

UM…THAT WAS A LOT

I told you I had a lot to say. What is even more interesting is that even as I write my blog, I have written blunders and fumbles. Verbal fillers are present in writing, in sign language, in all languages, in all forms of communication. So we can release some of the judgment we have on ourselves and others when working through a tough thought. And we also get to keep striving toward clarity and novelty to powerfully present the messages and stories those around us need to hear. 

WANT TO PRACTICE? 

Need a quick coaching session? Want to try out that Impromptu Topic Generator with some feedback? Drop-in for a complimentary 15-minute coaching session on this or any other speaking topic you may have! Click here to schedule a drop-in session, or contact me at erik@speakupstories.com.

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