Making Good Speakers Great

FILLER WORDS: Streamline Your Delivery

Filler words such as “uh,” “like,” “you know” and “basically” get a great deal of attention in discussions about communication. They occur in all languages. Speakers use them to signal when they’re pausing to think, but intend to continue talking. While I reject the assumption that filler words are like poison and need to be eradicated from our speech, especially from spontaneous speech, overusing these words in a mindless, habitual way can indeed make a speaker sound hesitant, unfocused and even less intelligent.

Assume, for the moment, you really do overuse filler words and phrases. What can you do to reduce the clutter in your speech? The key word in that question might be “do.” I believe it’s very difficult, and ultimately ineffective, to practice not doing something. How do you reinforce a non-action (e.g. Don’t talk too fast. Don’t rock back and forth. Don’t say, “Like.”)? If you are serious about eliminating an undesirable behavior, you must implement a new behavior that displaces the first. (I just discovered psychologists call them “competing behaviors.”)

In my opinion, the most effective competing behavior for filler words is breathing. I believe there’s a connection between breath holding and the use of filler words. Poor breathing habits increase tension, induce fast speech and inhibit clear thinking. That creates a perfect breeding ground for filler words. When you’re searching for the right idea or word, just pause and allow a breath to enter your body. You won’t vocalize while you’re inhaling. The rate of your speech becomes more deliberate and your brain functions more optimally. You become more conscious of the core of your message and how that can be best expressed. Filler words diminish.

I get a little crazy when people start counting the number of times a speaker uses filler words, especially in spontaneous speech. (Using frequent filler words in a prepared speech probably does reflect, well, a lack of preparation.) Great communication involves so much more than the absence of “um.” But when it reaches a point where the filler words become a distraction for your listeners, you do need to take action. “Just stop doing it,” is not an action. Competing skills, like breathing, are an effective solution for a stubborn problem.


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