Ask LH: How Can I Avoid Filler Words Like ‘Um’ When I Talk?

Ask LH: How Can I Avoid Filler Words Like ‘Um’ When I Talk?

Dear Lifehacker, I have a tendency to use a lot of filler words when I talk, like “um” and “like”, and I’ve recently realised how bad it sounds, especially during presentations at work. How can I train myself to eliminate these from my speech? Sincerely, Smoother Speech

Dear Smoother,

This problem is more common than you may think, and the fact that you’ve realised it — and want to fix it — is great. It’s cliché, but the first step is admitting you have a problem!

In general, we use filler words like “um” and “like” because we’re thinking. Maybe we’re searching for the right word, or we need to stop and formulate our next sentence. Often we use them to indicate that we’re going to talk, whether or not we have something to say at that very moment. Your specific reasons may be different from someone else’s, but here are a few general tips that should help you minimise all that filler.

First: Relax

Let’s start by saying: don’t fret over this too much. The more stressed you get by it, the more anxious and nervous you’re going to sound, which is really what we’re trying to get away from in the first place. It’s OK to let a few filler words slip out. After all, it’s a natural part of speaking. No one’s going to think less of you if you say “um” once in a while. The goal is to avoid saying it every three words. Take your hands out of your pockets, untense your shoulders and let yourself relax.

Pause Before You Speak

If you’re having a conversation or debate with someone and you jump in as soon as possible, you’re probably going to use more filler words. Instead, pause to think out your next statement before you speak. You may need to become a bit more comfortable with silence, but it can help reduce those filler words. The Harvard Extension Blog says it like this: pause, think, answer.

Pauses don’t always help though. The Art of Manliness notes a study that found pauses didn’t improve an audience’s perception of a speaker. We wouldn’t say this is a hard and fast rule — after all, the study only looked at a caller on a radio show, not an in-person conversation — but it seems logical. Constantly worrying about your “ums” and “likes” when you talk will only stress you out. All in all, we’d say go ahead and replace those filler words with pauses if you can — but don’t stress yourself out about it. The best pause you can make is the one before you start speaking.

Slow Down

This goes along with the last tip: don’t be afraid to slow down a bit. If you talk too fast, you’re likely to get a little tongue-tied, especially if you haven’t quite figured out what you’re going to say next. If your mouth moves faster than your brain, you’re going to use a lot more filler words. If you slow down, you’ll not only cut out the filler, but you’ll be much more understandable, which is crucial if you’re giving a speech or presentation.

Listen To Yourself

Next, set aside some time to listen to yourself talk and try to figure out where your filler words are most common. Some people recommend recording yourself, but it’s hard to get an accurate view of your speech in such a controlled situation. Still, it may work for you. Others recommend putting a rubber band on your wrist and switching it every time you catch yourself saying “um.” You could even have a friend listen to you and raise their hand every time they hear you stumble, which would help you catch on very quickly.

Of course, these are all situations in which you’re constantly listening for those ums and stressing yourself out, so you wouldn’t want to use them in normal conversation. It wouldn’t hurt to set aside some time as “practice” though — for example, our own Thorin Klosowski noticed that he used filler words most often when ordering at restaurants, which is a perfect time to practise.

Practise, Practise, Practise

In the end, the old saying holds true: the best way to get there is practise, practise, practise. Whether that means snapping yourself with the rubber band or just reminding yourself to slow down your speech more often, eventually it will become less of a chore and more second nature.

If you’re giving a presentation or speech, the same holds true: practise that speech as much as possible before you give it. Speeches actually have an advantage over regular conversation in that you can rehearse everything you’re going to say: so use that practice time to learn your stuff backwards and forwards. The better you know your speech, the more confident you’ll be and the less you’ll stumble. Remember, even in a speech, the occasional “um” isn’t the worst thing in the world — it’s how people naturally speak.

In the end, don’t let yourself get too frustrated over this. As we said many times, the more stressed you are about it, the worse you’ll probably make it — so just make a conscious (but not obsessive) effort to cut it down, and you’ll be surprised how far that will take you. Most people won’t notice or care about a few filler words here and there, so as long as you get it down to an acceptable level, there’s no reason to stress yourself out. Good luck!

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • Slow down, and practice are the top tips in my opinion. Slowing down your speech means the audience will be better able to absorb your content, and your brain won’t be trying to get in front of itself and forget what the next word is supposed to be – filling in an um when it can’t remember.

    And practice is the most valuable thing you can do. The more you practice the more confident and relaxed you’ll be and hence the better you’ll deliver your presentation.

  • When I was in school and we had to do speeches. We used to get marked down for saying umm. For some people it seems to be a habit or a bit of better say something than nothing. Though some people replace umm.. With a phrase or suchlike. My boss is notorious for using a set phrase when ever he gets stuck.

  • Most people seem to say “y’know” instead of “um” now, and it infuriates me. #bringbackum

  • Calming down is so important – everything else can spring from there. Going too fast and saying “um” as a filler often has its roots in anxiety; that nervousness translates into needing to fill a quiet space, which leads to speaking too soon or not pausing when you otherwise should. Take a deep breath, spend some time reassuring yourself and try to quell what makes you most nervous. For students, it’s often getting judged by peers, rather than markers – know that no one is going to remember your speech.
    The biggest boost I got, in terms of confidence, was working at a small cinema while I was a uni student. I’ve never been one to try and offload work onto someone else when I’m just as well placed to do that work myself, so when something went wrong and we needed to communicate to 100-200 people, I’d do it. Yes, I knew I could cop some abuse, but I knew exactly what tools I had to deal with that (in that case, vouchers or refunds) and it needed to be done. Once I had done it a couple of times, I had picked up some useful public speaking tools and that has flowed onto presentations at uni and, now, professionally.

  • The pause at the start, and listening to myself works for me. Also consider repeating yourself through paraphrasing something you recently said. It reinforces THAT message, and gives you the time needed to think about what you want to say next.

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