6 keys to avoiding and stopping verbal fillers when presenting

Maurice DeCastro
5 min readFeb 27, 2022

If you’re not familiar with the term ‘verbal fillers’ you’ll know them when you hear them.

Josh in marketing is presenting the last quarters marketing activity and successes. During his 15 minute update you may here:

Um

Ah

Er

So

Obviously

Like

Basically

You know

These are just a few examples of verbal fillers you’ll hear from presenters and public speakers.

Why does Josh use verbal fillers?

There are a number of possible reasons for the use of verbal fillers:

– Nerves

– Speaking too fast

– Lack of preparation/practice

– Too much information

– Fear of silence

– Lack of knowledge

– Fear of public speaking

– Making space for thought

Whatever the reason, the biggest problem is that verbal fillers often become habitual. In other words, it’s quite common to hear a speaker use the same verbal filler each time they present. Before we explore this further, please remember that verbal fillers are a completely normal part of speech when used occasionally. Interestingly, the linguist Mark Liberman suggests that one in every sixty words people use is either um or uh in their natural speech.

If verbal fillers are so common why are they a problem?

They are not a problem until they are used repeatedly to the point of distraction. In other words, Josh can um and ah three or four times during a 10 minute presentation without anyone giving it a second thought. The moment Josh uses those verbal fillers repeatedly to the point that his audience notices them, they become annoying. In fact, they may become so distracting that his audience starts counting them. The occasional, natural use of verbal fillers shows you are human just like your audience so shouldn’t be perceived as bad when used sparingly. After all, in business presentations no one really wants to listen to a slick, highly polished, perfectly memorised presentation; it’s not normal.

It’s only when used repeatedly and excessively that verbal fillers become annoying.

Mindfulness is the key to avoiding and stopping verbal fillers when presenting

The best strategy to eliminate verbal fillers is to mindfully:

  1. Heighten your awareness

The first step to changing any habit is to identify it. Find someone you trust and respect to help you to become more aware of your verbal fillers. Knowing that you use them when presenting isn’t enough. The next time you find yourself presenting ask someone to quietly and confidentially count how many times you use the verbal filler you are concerned about. Ask them to count in the quiet of their own mind the number of times you say, ‘um’, ‘ah’, or ‘er’.

Record yourself presenting either through a practice or live presentation. Watch the video or listen to the audio recording mindfully. Count how many times you use verbal fillers.

Once you have a much clearer idea of the number of times you are using verbal fillers and what these sound like you are in a stronger position. There’s an old saying in business that, ‘what gets measured gets managed’.

The moment you measure and understand the impact of verbal fillers is the moment you get to manage them.

2. Set a goal

Now you know what you are dealing with you can set a goal to change it. You know that to manage your verbal fillers you have to measure them. Now you’ve quantified the issue you are in a much better position to act.

Remember your friend or colleague who helped you to get this far in identifying exactly how often you use verbal fillers? Tell them their job isn’t done.

Call on there kindness and generosity each time you present. Remind them of your concern and ask them to count again. Each time you do so keep in mind a specific goal to substantially reduce the number of times you use verbal fillers.

“Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.” — Pablo Picasso

3. Accept imperfection

Whatever you learn from listening to yourself or receiving feedback, don’t try to be a perfect presenter. If you’re a perfectionist you may find this article in ‘Good Therapy’ helpful. It opens with the following idea:

‘Perfectionism is often seen as a positive trait that increases your chances of success, but it can lead to self-defeating thoughts or behaviours that make it harder to achieve goals. It may also cause stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.’

It’s important to accept the fact that verbal fillers are a natural part of everyday speech for many people. Trying to eliminate everything you don’t like in your quest for perfection will hinder rather than help you.

4. Slow down

By mindfully slowing down, we give ourselves more time to prepare our thoughts. Many presenters impose cognitive overload on their audience. Remember, your audience can only process a limited amount of information at any one time. That means that speaking fast and overloading them with data isn’t helpful to you or them. They can’t take it all in so fast and you’ll run out of breath.

The moment you run out of breath, in the absence of slowing down and allowing yourself to naturally breathe the gap is likely to be filled with verbal fillers.

Slow down and breathe.

Don’t just wait for this to happen the next time you are presenting, practice doing so well in advance.

5. Practice pausing

The arch nemesis of verbal fillers is silence.

By far, the best replacement for all verbal fillers is a pause.

It’s that very brief moment where you say nothing in between sentences. Just a second or two of silence is uncomfortable for many presenters. For some, it can feel like an eternity. The truth is, for our audience it’s a gift. They cannot listen effectively to presenters sharing so much information so quickly. A momentary pause allows them to breath too and catch up with you.

It’s extremely hard to say ‘er’ when you are focused on pausing.

6. Calm down

Sometimes we all need to slow down and calm down a little. This is particularly helpful for presenters and public speakers. One powerful way to do both is to practice meditation.

Meditation can easily become a presenters best friend. It’s a tool which, used mindfully offers generous benefits. Carmine Gallo shares how to do this very simply in his Forbes article, ‘Five Minutes A Day To Conquer The Fear of Public Speaking.’

The benefits of meditating extend way beyond helping us to eliminate verbal fillers. If you’d like to learn more, here are ’12 Science-Based Benefits of Meditation.’

On a final note, if your name is Josh and you just happen to work in marketing but don’t use verbal fillers, please accept my apologies.

If you need help with verbal fillers when presenting:

– 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

I really hope you enjoyed this post. If you did, please feel free to share it through your preferred social media channels below and subscribe to our mailing list so you won’t miss any future posts.

Photo by ConvertKit on Unsplash

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Maurice DeCastro

Author, speaker, trainer, presenter - former corporate executive passionate about personal leadership, people and results.