What’s Wrong (and Right) about Filler Words?

By Celeste DeCamps | General

Jun 09

I had to attend meetings twice a month when I worked in sales. Our suppliers would present their new products to educate us and hope to garner excitement. For the most part, they were dull and uninteresting. It was apparent that they spent very little time preparing their talk. To keep awake, I would make a checkmark every time they used a particular filler word. I would end up with about twenty or thirty "Ahs" and "Ums," and that would be only the first presenter. I would also make a list of "buzz" words that always showed up at these events. The winners were; "sexy," "fun," "take it to the next level," and our favorite, "think outside the box." It was a missed opportunity to inspire a group of salespeople to want to represent their product.

"So," "Like," "Well," "You Know," "Right?" are just a few examples of filler words. Most of us are guilty of using these place holders while we try to remember what we want to say next. We will use an "ah" or an "um" to let others know we have not finished our thought. Most of the time, these words go unnoticed. When it's excessive, it makes a person come across as unprepared and nervous. It will also make the audience feel anxious.

Ending our sentences with a "you know?" or "right?" as we're speaking is a way to make sure the other person is listening to us. We want to see a nod of their head in agreement. The problem with using these filler words too much is we'll come across as insecure. It will seem as if we need constant validation of our ideas. If we're making eye contact with the person we're speaking to, we should be able to tell that they are paying attention and understanding our point of view.

So, let me tell you about the time I had to take a knife away from a biker.

Why do we begin our stories with the word, "so?" I believe it's our way to enter into the conversation. It's a form of raising our hand and taking our turn to speak. If every sentence starts with "so." It becomes a crutch and weakens the impact of our message.

To be a more effective communicator, we must be aware of our use of these speed bumps. Here are three tips to help you smooth out any hint of hesitation when you speak.

  1. Be prepared. When you're making a presentation or introducing yourself to another person or group, practice what you'll say. Don't worry about being perfect. If a filler word finds its way into your speech, it's okay. The more groundwork you do, the less chance you will be "umming" and "ahhing" throughout your talk. 
  2. Breathe. Don't be afraid to pause and take a breath while your mind is looking for your next idea. Taking your time to gather your thoughts is more effective than filling the void with needless words. When you're the only person on stage, trust that no one plans to interrupt you. If you're having a conversation with another person or group and someone takes advantage of your break, relax. Let the person speak and then continue with, "as I was saying" or "thank you, for your input." Most people are anxious to join in and contribute, not meaning to be rude. 
  3. Practice mindfulness. You may be surprised by how many filler words you use when you slow down and pay attention to your own words. Better yet, ask your friends and family to listen for these little ticks in your speech. Recording yourself as you speak will give you a clear understanding of your speech patterns.

In our day-to-day interactions, we may not be as concerned with our "ahs" and "ums." Practicing to reduce our use of them will result in being a more fluid and confident speaker. Our passion and enthusiasm to talk about our ideas, products, or services will be more successful by eliminating unnecessary words or phrases. Our audience will appreciate a clear and concise presentation that keeps them interested. So, like, do you know what I mean? 

About the Author

Celeste DeCamps has a B.A. in Communications from the University of Miami. She worked in radio and television, was a professional belly dancer, drummer, percussionist, nightclub owner, and a sales rep for Southern Wine and Spirits for 12 years. Throughout her different career moves, speaking to and teaching women how to be more confident is Celeste's most fulfilling job.