The following sentence will be unbearably hard to read. That’s, um, because there will be, like, a bunch of uh, you know, filler words in it, you know? While that sentence was extreme, almost all of us used some filler words while talking.
We lean on these little phrases and noises to fill in the awkward conversation gaps. But they can also make us sound nervous, unprofessional, and unconfident.
If you’d like to know how to use fewer filler words and make your speaking clearer and more confident, read on!
What Are Filler Words?
Filler words are words or phrases we insert into speech, often unconsciously, which don’t add meaning to the sentence, like “um” or “you see.” They’re often used during pauses or to buy time when we’re unsure what to say next. Filler words can take away from the credibility of a speaker.
Filler words are everywhere
A group of researchers observed hundreds of conversations in person and over the phone and found that about 4% of our words1https://www.researchgate.net/publication/221480420_Gender_in_everyday_speech_and_language_a_corpus-based_study are filler words. Given the average speaking rate2https://virtualspeech.com/blog/average-speaking-rate-words-per-minute, that maps out to roughly one filler word every 10 seconds.
How filler words impact your communication
While some filler words are unavoidable, using them too often can hurt your communication in the following ways.
- Undermine credibility: Excessive use of filler words can make a speaker appear less knowledgeable or confident. This can undermine their credibility, especially in formal or professional settings.
- Impede clarity: Filler words can clutter speech and make it harder for listeners to understand the key points. This can make your speaking less effective and memorable.
- Perceived lack of preparation: If you’re giving a speech, your filler words may convey nervousness and give your audience the impression that you are unprepared or haven’t thought through their ideas, even if that’s not the case.
- Decrease persuasiveness: In persuasive or motivational speaking, clear and concise language is crucial. Filler words can dilute the power of a speaker’s arguments and reduce their ability to influence others. A study of telemarketers3https://www.researchgate.net/publication/291386326_First_Impressions_of_Telephone_Survey_Interviewers found that using filler words made them less effective at garnering survey participants. Even if you just want your friends to watch a movie with you, how you speak your perspective will make a difference.
Here’s a youtube clip where every “uh” and “um” from an 11-minute speech by Clint Eastwood is jam edited into a 1-minute filler word montage. While it’s obviously extreme, it does get the point across of how uncomfortable it can feel to hear other people using filler words.
The Most Common Filler Words
Here’s a list of the most common filler words and sounds. However, you might use filler words that aren’t on this list. Different regional slang can give rise to different filler words (think “eh” in Canada or “dude” on the West Coast of the US). Even friend groups can develop their own filler word slang.
These are probably the most common filler words. They are often used when the speaker is thinking or deciding what to say next.
Example: “I was thinking about going to eat, um, maybe Korean food. What do you think?”
Similar to “um” and “uh,” “er” is a sound people make when they are thinking about what to say next, expressing hesitation, or attempting to hold the listener’s attention during a pause in speech.
Example: “I’m, er, not quite sure how to proceed.”
“Like” Is often used when someone is making comparisons or trying to explain something but struggling to find the right words.
Example: “Well, it’s, like, way harder than I thought.”
This is used to assert authority or make a point seem more important, but it’s often used excessively and unnecessarily.
Example: “Did you know that it’s actually a full moon tonight?”
This is used when the speaker is trying to relate to the other person, confirm their understanding, or search for a word, but it can be overused and become disruptive to the message.
Example: “It’s not about fame or, you know, fortune. It’s about enjoying the ride.”
This is used when a speaker is considering their next point, to disagree politely, or to introduce a sentence, but it can be redundant or signal uncertainty when overused.
Example: When asked how the project was going, she said, “Well, it could be going worse.”
This phrase is often used when the speaker is trying to clarify or elaborate on a point. It can become a filler phrase when it’s used too frequently and without adding any real clarity.
Example: “Beyond Beef is so good. I mean, it’s probably the best meat substitute.”
This phrase is used when the speaker wants to explain or demonstrate something, but it can become a filler phrase when it’s overused and does not lead to further clarification or demonstration.
Example: “You see, people want to express themselves; it’s a natural aspect of being human.”
Totally / Definitely
You can use words like “totally” to express agreement or encourage another person to find their thoughts. But if it goes too far, you might use it where it doesn’t make sense and bog down the conversation with the word, making you come off as overly agreeable.
Example: “I totally know what you mean.”
3 Quick Tips To Reduce Your Filler Words
If you’d like to cut down on your use of filler words, try out the following tips.
Identify your crutch words
Are you a “like” person or an “um” person? It’s difficult to know which filler words you rely on unless you record yourself or receive feedback.
I used to host a podcast, and I remember the endless cringe I’d go through as I edited each episode and heard myself say “totally” over and over and over. I had no idea how aggressively I used that word until I listened to the episode recordings.
Want to clarify your crutch words? Here are three great ways to do just that.
- Record yourself for 3 minutes. Try reflecting on the prompt, “What is my relationship to my hobbies right now?” for three minutes. Once you finish, listen back to the recording, and notice which filler words you lean on. It might be interesting to count how often you use each word.
- Create a makeshift podcast episode. Ask a friend if they’d be interested in recording a podcast episode that will never be released. Put a ten-minute to hour-long conversation in the calendar with them, and when the time comes, record the conversation over Zoom. Filler words aside, you might find this activity interesting because it will give extra energy to your conversation. But you can also scan back through the recording to notice which filler words you rely on.
- Go to Toastmasters. Toastmasters is an international organization for folks who want to practice public speaking. There are multiple chapters in every city. If you attend a Toastmasters, you can give either a written or an impromptu speech, and someone at the event will record how often you use filler words in your speech.
Practice speaking mindfully
Once you’ve identified the main filler culprits in your speech, try one of these exercises to create new speaking habits.
- Slow, mindful speech practice. Find a friend to help you with this one. Set a three-minute timer, and just share with your friend how your week has been. But here’s the kicker, try talking at 50% of your normal pace when you’re sharing and pause before you speak your following sentence. This way, you can practice biting your tongue when you feel tempted to say “well” or “you know.”
- Practice pausing in a voice memo. Record a three-minute voice memo either just for yourself or in a text message to a friend. You can try the 50% speed like above or go at full pace. But set a strong intention before replacing filler words with pauses. Pay special attention to the moments where you pause to think—let yourself sit in silence! If you need a prompt, try sharing what’s going well and what’s challenging in your career right now.
Find calm before a conversation
Many of us use filler words as an expression of our nervousness in a conversation. If you can find a way to get more calm and grounded in the conversation, you’ll be less likely to leak out filler words.
Here are two practices you can try for your next conversation
Box breathing. This is a simple tactic that Navy seals4https://www.forbes.com/sites/nomanazish/2019/05/30/how-to-de-stress-in-5-minutes-or-less-according-to-a-navy-seal/ use to find calm. Try it for a few minutes right before the next conversation you are nervous about.
- Inhale through your nose for 4 seconds. Imagine walking up the left side of a square.
- Hold your breath for 4 seconds. Image walking across the top of the square.
- Exhale for 4 seconds. Imagine walking down the right side of the square.
- Hold your breath for 4 seconds. Imagine walking across the bottom of the square.
- Repeat for a total of four repetitions.
Listen with slow breaths. When we are afraid, we naturally take quick and shallow breaths. But we can actively take long, slow breaths, which is linked to a myriad of respiratory and cardiovascular benefits5https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5709795/table/TB1/, vagal nerve stimulation, and calmness.
So here’s your action step: the next time you are in a conversation, make it your goal to breathe as slowly and deeply as possible when the other person is talking. You’ll likely forget mid-conversation, so you can set your phone to vibrate every 10 minutes as a reminder.
If you’d like more ideas on breathing exercises, check out this guide.
While nixing your filler words is a key part of communicating clearly, you might enjoy this free goodie if you want to take your conversational mastery to the next level.
Communicate With Confidence
Do you struggle with small talk? Do you often run out of things to say or feel awkward and self-conscious in social situations?
💪 Speak so people listen,
🤐 No more awkward silences,
🚫 No more small talk.
Why Do We Use Filler Words?
Sometimes, filler words happen due to nervousness or not knowing what to say. However, there are some not-so-well-known benefits of using them. Check out the reasons why we use them: Buy time while thinking
One of the most common reasons for using filler words is to give the speaker time to think. Often when someone is caught off guard in a conversation and needs time to get back on their feet and figure out what they’re going to say, they might drop a few “mums” until their thoughts are clear.
Fill uncomfortable silence
For many people, an awkward silence can generate anxiety that feels like it’s eating them from the inside out. When we feel this way, it’s natural to scramble to find filler words to plug into the silence void, hoping that with enough “mums,” we can find our way back into the conversation.
For most of us, speaking with filler words is simply a habit. “Likes” and “I mean” automatically fill the crevices of our verbal communication, especially if we spend time with others who also use filler words.
Holding the floor
Filler words are often used to indicate that the speaker hasn’t finished their point and isn’t ready to yield the floor to another speaker. These words help maintain the flow of the conversation and prevent others from interrupting. The thinking is something like: “I don’t yet have something else to say, but as long as noises are coming out of my mouth, it should indicate that I’m not done speaking quite yet.”
Filler words can also serve as linguistic cushions, softening the impact of what’s being said or helping to build rapport with the listener. If you’re sharing a hard conviction or a controversial opinion, words like “you know,” “I mean,” or “like” can make statements seem less abrupt or authoritative and more friendly or relatable, which can be especially useful in informal conversation.
Expressing uncertainty or hesitation
Sometimes, speakers use filler words like “um,” “uh,” or “well” to signal that they are uncertain or hesitant about what they are saying. It’s a non-verbal cue that they are in the process of formulating thoughts or making decisions. This can often happen during tense or difficult conversations as a way of dealing with their anxiety.
Facilitating a transition
Filler words and phrases like “so,” “now,” or “anyway” are often used to facilitate a transition in thought or topic, helping to guide the listener through the speaker’s narrative.
When It’s Good to Use Filler Words
Filler words often get criticized in public speaking for undermining a speaker’s confidence and credibility. However, there is a place for them. Here are three good reasons to use filler words:
- To hold the floor in a fast-paced discussion. If you’re speaking with folks prone to interrupting, using filler words can signal that the speaking space is still yours.
- To break into a conversation. If you’re speaking with an endless rambler, a simple “um” can wedge yourself back into the conversation.
- When learning English. For folks learning English as a second language, learning filler words can be useful to make their speech sound more familiar to the listener.
Frequently Asked Questions About Filler Words
People use filler words to buy time while thinking about what to say next, to fill uncomfortable silences, and simply due to habit. They also use filler words to hold onto their speaking turn in a conversation or soften their statements, and often just as an unconscious expression of nervousness when they feel unconfident.
Some common examples of filler words include “um,” “uh,” “like,” “you know,” “so,” “actually,” and “totally.” However, the usage of filler words can vary regionally, with different areas or groups having their unique set of filler words or phrases.
Reducing the use of filler words in your speech starts with self-awareness. First, identify your go-to filler words by recording yourself and listening carefully. Then try to practice speaking in short time containers with slow pauses instead of filler words. Lastly, you can try calming techniques before a conversation to reduce your filler words that come from nervousness.
Filler words, in excess, can be considered unprofessional, especially in formal settings or during public speaking. They can undermine the speaker’s credibility, clutter speech, impede clarity, and decrease persuasiveness. They may also give an impression of a lack of preparation or uncertainty. However, the occasional use of filler words is natural and can help maintain conversational flow.
The best way to become more aware of your use of filler words is to record yourself speaking and then listen to the recording. You could also join a public speaking group like Toastmasters to help identify and monitor your use of filler words. Once you’ve identified your verbal crutches, you can work on strategies to reduce their frequency in your speech.
Using filler words can help maintain the flow of conversation. They can act as verbal signals that you’re not yet ready to yield to the speaking floor, preventing interruptions and ensuring the continuity of your speech. Especially in informal conversations or fast-paced discussions, filler words can help manage the exchange of speaking turns, ensuring the conversation doesn’t become disjointed or disrupted.
Changing Your Habits Around Filler Words
The use of filler words is a habit that you can reprogram.
First, identify which filler words you rely on. You can do this by:
- Recording yourself for 3 minutes speaking stream of consciousness, and listen to your recording.
- Create a makeshift podcast episode with a friend, where you record your entire conversation. Scan through to see which words and sounds you lean on.
- Go to Toastmasters, where you can give speeches and receive feedback from others on which filler words you use.
Once you’ve clarified your filler words, practice:
- Slow, mindful speech where you speak to a friend for three minutes straight, speaking at 50% speed without filler words.
- Filler-free voice memos where you record yourself speaking for a few minutes with the explicit intention of using zero filler words.
And sometimes, we use excessive filler words when we are nervous. So if you are about to enter into a conversation that is making you nervous, try:
- Box breathing right before the conversation to calm down.
- Listen with slow breaths. While the other person is speaking, breathe as slowly as possible, using a vibrating alarm to remind you every few minutes.
Hopefully, this article will help you on your journey toward becoming an even more confident and clear communicator! And if you want to go deeper into practicing public speaking skills, you might enjoy this post that breaks down the most effective apps to help train the skillset.
How to Deal with Difficult People at Work
Do you have a difficult boss? Colleague? Client? Learn how to transform your difficult relationship.
I’ll show you my science-based approach to building a strong, productive relationship with even the most difficult people.