The problem with filler words when presenting and how to control your use of them

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Filler words are highly recognisable. In presenting and public speaking they come in the form of:

Er

Um

You know

Obviously

Like

Uh

Actually

Okay

So

Basically

Filler words when used sparingly are not a problem. When  they are used repeatedly to the point of distraction they are harmful. Over use of these words can damage your credibility and undermine your presentation. It’s hard to take a presenter seriously and focus on their message when every other sentence begins with ‘so’.

What’s wrong with filler words, exactly?

If you’ve been on the receiving end of them you will already know the answer to this question. For the avoidance of uncertainty, here are a few reasons:

– They make you sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about

– You can come across as unprepared

– Many people will think you are nervous

– They can be hugely distracting

– Filler words add no value, meaning or power

– We don’t sound very intelligent

– Did I mention the negative impact on your credibility

If filler words are so bad, why do so many intelligent and talented people use them?

– We work with so many other people who use them, they become contagious

– Speaking too fast without pausing from breath is a common reason

– It could be a nervous habit due to a fear of public speaking

– Perhaps we aren’t quite as knowledgeable as we need to be on the topic

– Maybe it’s simply an unconscious habit we have never given our attention to

– We may not even know we do it; no one has told us

– Having too much too say in too little time is a problem

– A lack of preparation and practice is a prime suspect.

The fact is, it is extremely common to find a presenter using filler words when they are rushed, nervous or simply unprepared when speaking.

If you use filler words and can’t connect with one of the possible reasons I’ve shared don’t worry. The truth is, very few people are able to speak fluently without using some kind of filler word.

How to stop using filler words to the point of distraction

I’ve chosen my words very mindfully here. Trying to eradicate the use of filler words completely is futile. We all use filler words on occasion, to some extent; it’s part of everyday speaking. Efforts to banish filler words from your vocabulary totally is seeking perfection. In this context, it’s an unhelpful and unhealthy mission.

The challenge is to speak with a level of fluency where filler words don’t become noticeable or a point of distraction.

Here are our top tips to stop using filler words to the point of distraction:

  1. Become aware

The best place to start is by becoming aware of whether you use filler words to the point of distraction. That means becoming mindful of what they are exactly, how often you use them and the impact they have on your audience.

Either call on the help of a trusted friend or colleague to listen to you present or find yourself a really good public speaking coach.

In our presentation skills training courses we commonly experience three scenarios:

– Professionals who have no idea whether they use filler words

– People who tell us that the use of filler words is a major problem for them; when it isn’t.

– Clients who use these words excessively but have no idea that they do. Some insist that they don’t!

Before you do anything else, find out whether this is a specific issue for you and to what extent.

  1. Slow down

When we are either anxious or excited, the natural tendency for most of us is to speed up rather than slow down when presenting.

We have to practice and discipline ourselves to slow down.

If speed is an issue for you then find some passages from a favourite book and practice reading them out aloud slowly. Do this regularly and repeatedly. The process of doing so won’t carry forward to your presentation but is will teach you how to slow down and calm down. In doing so, you will gradually become comfortable with speaking at a slower pace. It will also provide you with the space to notice where filler words can easily creep in so that you can more mindfully avoid them.

  1. Use shorter sentences and pause

Filler words are often a substitute for a momentary pause. We are designed to speak in short sentences, naturally breathing in between each one. In the absence of a breath, that space is likely to be filled with something; in this case it could easily be one of these words.

I believe it was Aristotle who coined the phrase “nature abhors a vacuum.”

Practice using shorter sentences and fill the space with a mindful pause.

  1. Use transitions instead

Speech transitions are words and phrases that help your presentation flow smoothly.

Like everything else in this article it takes focus and practice but can be highly effective in replacing those distracting words. Instead of saying, ‘er’ or ‘um’, you may choose to use one of the following instead:

‘Moving on’

‘Let’s take a look at’

‘On the other hand’

Let’s go back to’

‘Likewise’

‘Similarly’

‘Not only that’

‘In other words’

‘That means’

‘For example’

‘Let’s take a look at’

  1. Challenge yourself

Using filler words excessively becomes a habit, a bad habit. Often, one of the most effective ways of removing a bad habit is by challenging yourself with a new approach.

Take a quick look around your desk or the room you are in and find something random that catches your eye. It could be the phone, a book, a pen, paperweight or perhaps computer mouse.

Make a decision to speak about your chosen object for 30 seconds  without using any filler words.

You may wish to describe it, sell it or imagine it’s something completely different.

Set the timer on your phone for 30 seconds and focus on speaking about it without filler words.

Remember, repetition is the mother or learning, so keep at it.

If you need help with filler words in business presentations:

– Book yourself onto a powerful public speaking course.

– Invest in some really good one to one public speaking coaching.

– Get yourself some excellent presentation training

Photo by Moses Londo on Unsplash

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