How To Stop Saying Um (And Other, Like, You Know, Filler Words)

How To Stop Saying Um (And Other, Like, You Know, Filler Words)

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As a podcaster this is something I’ve had to come to grips with in many unflattering ways.

Being more of a writer than a speaker, I tend to think fast, type with abandon and edit later.

But when there’s no edit function it gets kind of embarrassing. And it’s not just about podcasting. If you record video, go to networking events, host webinars… or even do something as simple as talk to your clients and prospects… nobody wants to hear you um and er your way through a conversation.

I’ve worked to pre-edit those words out of my speech so that even in the absence of an edit/delete function I can sound reasonably intelligent. It requires practice and I’m not sure that even professional speakers can manage without slipping them in once in a while, but there are certainly ways to improve the quality of your conversation so more people will listen and fewer will cringe.

This is how I practice – every day! Try these ideas and see how they can help you improve your speech.

Pause

A lot of filler words happen because we’re literally filling space. We’re not sure what to say, we don’t quite have our thoughts collected, so we um and ah until something works itself out in our brain.

It’s an easy habit to get into and a tough one to break because we’re not all that used to the sound of silence.

But one of the best things you can do for yourself – and the person listening to you – is simply to stop filling the silence. If someone asks you a question it’s ok to pause for a moment to think of an answer. If you’re in the middle of a sentence and aren’t sure what point you want to make next it’s ok to pause and consider it.

Few things are as uncomfortable for many of us as a whole three seconds of silence, but it can be done. Plus your listener may actually appreciate the fact that you seem thoughtful and deliberate about what you’re saying, rather than running roughshod through a conversation.

Slow Down

My brain tends to work faster than my mouth. Which means my mouth gets tripped up over what it needs to say next as my brain works out which part to send to it.

What happens next is um, well, um, um, you know, like I have to um like think about how to turn that jumble of thoughts into words.

If you’re especially passionate about something or well into your comfort zone, you might think it would be easy to breeze through a speech. Alas, this is exactly when we tend to um and ah the most, and it’s because we’re a little too comfortable in our thoughts but not as careful about getting them out of our mouths.

When I get excited about something and start to like, you know, just keep like dropping those fillers in… I know it’s time to s.l.o.w. d.o.w.n.

Deliberately speaking slower will help you think through the words and collect your thoughts into sentences. And I’m not talking about the kind of slowing down that puts people to sleep. Even a fraction of a second can have a positive effect.

I find that actually thinking the words helps me. Maybe it’s the writer in me but if I can watch those words scroll across my brain the same way they’d do on a page, it’s more like reading what’s in my head instead of stumbling over them as they pour out my mouth.

Move Past Mistakes

Another sneaky way that those filler words get in is when we stutter or fumble over our words in general. Maybe we just didn’t get it out right or we forgot what we wanted to say.

Next thing you know, it’s all um and er and um well…

Making mistakes and tripping over your own thoughts is not fun but filler words typically don’t improve the situation.

I’ve found that the best way to deal with a mistake is to keep on going. Whether you’ve mispronounced something, started a sentence only to realize it was the wrong one or just stuttered, leave it and move on.

Know Your Triggers

After editing over 100 podcast episodes I’ve learned that nearly everyone has a trigger that sets off the ums and ya knows.

For example, one guest once added an “um” after every “and” so each sentence included the word “andum”.

Another guest, when finally getting around to the punchline, would punctuate it by saying, “You know?”

There are many varieties of this.

I too often stick the word “so” in between two thoughts. It’s my version of a verbal period.

If you listen to yourself long enough you’ll start to pick up on when and how you use filler words. And once you recognize that, you can consciously work on reducing their frequency – by pausing instead of saying them, by slowing down and by moving right past them when they creep in anyway!

Beware The Mirror

One of the toughest obstacles for me in terms of removing filler words is other people. And that’s because I fall into the habits of the person I’m talking with.

It’s actually rooted in psychology but when we’re engaged and interested we tend to mirror the person we’re with. So if I’m talking to you, and your thing is to say, “Right?” after every opinion you share, I’m probably going to say it “right” back at you.

I’ve also absorbed “you know” and other fillers masquerading as real words. Unlike ums and ahs, it seems perfectly ok to fill space with these types of “real words” but listen to someone say “like, you know” for the 50th time and it’s not so much fun anymore.

So while it’s ok to mirror someone’s forward-sitting posture, try to avoid doing it with their quirky fillers. The only way around it to be conscious of their speech patterns and beware the magnetic pull of, like, you know, those perfectly normal words.

Practice!

I still edit out ums and you knows and other fillers, but since I’ve been more conscious of it and mindful of what I’m saying, it’s definitely improved things. For starters, I get to spend less time editing! But more importantly it makes the listening experience for my audience, my clients, my prospects and even my friends across the dinner table a lot more pleasant.

Remember, the goal is not to eliminate filler words. They happen. The goal is to improve and to learn to keep going even if they do get in the way.

Practice, practice, practice – every conversation of every single day gives you a chance to do that. Next time you’re on Skype or talking to your mom on the phone or meeting a client or recording a podcast, use it as an opportunity to practice speaking a little bit better every time.

Do you have any de-fillering tips that work for you? Let me know! You can never have too many, you know, tools in your arsenal. Right?

Carol Lynn Rivera

Carol Lynn Rivera

I'm a business owner, content creator, podcaster and marketer. In 1999 I founded Rahvalor Interactive, a web and creative services production studio, with my husband and business partner Ralph. In 2011 we created Web.Search.Social, a consulting and marketing service line for small businesses. We also cohost the Web.Search.Social Podcast where we challenge the status quo of marketing and the Carbon Based Business Units podcast where we talk about the human side of being an entrepreneur. On any given day I wear the hat of project manager, consultant, social media manager and content marketer. My true passion is writing and in my spare time I'm busy planning my early retirement to Barcelona as a famous and wealthy novelist.
Carol Lynn Rivera
Carol Lynn Rivera
  • Tip-top tips!

    Speaking to an audience is hard and it’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea.

    It’s not a “filler word”, but it drives me nuts when speakers or guests inject a nervous giggle throughout a presentation or when they repeatedly say “uh, huh, uh, huh, uh, huh” to validate what the other person is saying. Or when someone uses a catchphrase a hundred times in an effort to make their point. I mean how many times do you really need to hear “take your business to the next level” in a 30-minute webinar?! Personally, if I hear it more than twice, I’m miffed and irritated.

    I can ALWAYS tell when someone hasn’t rehearsed. A choppy, disjointed presentation with an overload of filler words turns me off in a heartbeat. Not to mention it instantly diminishes the speaker’s credibility.

    • I am so with you with the ‘uhuhuhuh’ thing! It drives me, like, insane!!! As does the peppering of everything with ‘like’, which seems to be a fad of the kids here in the UK. Grrr. It makes me so, um, angry!!!!! I have just started making a daily video diary and I seem to be turning into a whispering fool! I suddenly lose the knack of speaking out loud and the amount of um’s is astounding. I’m not publishing it yet. (Thank your and everyone else’s lucky stars!) I figured I would make a video every day for 30 days just to get comfortable with doing it. It is so much harder than I realised and hats off to anyone who can do it without filling everything up with claptrap.

      • Like, you know, I, like, totally get what you’re saying, Maria. LOL!

        Joking aside, that drive me bonkers, too. These days I hear “So” (“So I had this idea the other day.” “So I was about to leave the house when … ” “So I saw this dress that’s perfect for you”, etc.) more often than “Like”.

        I sometimes wonder how these [word] trends get started. Let’s just blame the millennials, shall we? 😉

        Good for you for starting a video diary! You’re one brave woman. 🙂

        • ::::hangs head:::::

          I say SO all the time. It kills me. I cringe every time I say it because I KNOW I say it!! Such a bad habit. In fact I even use it in my writing and have to delete it with prejudice. It’s one of those weird transition words that feel like you need it in there to connect thoughts. UGH!!

          • We love you, anyway. SO there! 🙂

            SO has its place in the world, as in …

            SO many tasks, SO few minutes in a day.
            SO courageous of you to admit you say SO all the time.
            SO tempting was the pie, I gobbled up three slices.
            SO and SO should be reprimanded for SO much social media negativity.

            SO, you were saying, Carol Lynn? LOL!

          • so now that you put it like that…. 🙂

      • That’s a classic case of nerves! And that goes away over time. When we first started podcasting we scrapped the first half dozen because we didn’t like them but then we got more comfortable and things picked up. Video is worse because of hair and makeup 🙂 But you can do it! Just keep going, practice and practice some more!

  • Katherine Kotaw

    I cringe every time I hear myself say “you know” in a recorded conversation. But, like Carol Lynn, I fall into this most often when I’m excited, and I hope the passion behind my words offsets the verbal slips at least a little.

    “Like” used to drive me crazy but, after living in California (and both daughters adopting Valley-speak) I’ve become immune to its effects.

    The pause is hard to master, but it really helps curb filler-speak.

    Great tips, Carol Lynn!

    • Same for me! You know… like…. so…. and sometimes I can HEAR myself doing it and still can’t stop. Guess there’s a long road to perfect 🙂