We’re all guilty of using filler words and sounds. They include everything from “um” and “ah” to “you know” and “like.” But unless they’re used excessively, we don’t really notice unnecessary phrases and words in casual conversations.
At work, it’s a different story.
Why do we tend to fall back on these filler words?
When we asked leadership communication expert Deborah Grayson Riegel about why we use filler words, she said we do this so we don’t lose our train of thought. She calls the sound bridge an articulated pause. It gives us time to think, and isn't a bad thing in and of itself.
Leadership consultant Selena Rezvani tells us “they’re natural verbal tools that play a needed role in our day-to-day conversations. They can create a pause between ideas or a bridge between two separate thoughts. They can even be a pivot to change the subject.”
The problem occurs when we lean on filler sounds too much.
Read more: Mastering Your Attention to Detail
Does this ‘um’ habit affect how people perceive you at work?
Overusing filler words and sounds in the workplace can earn us a negative reputation, Rezvani says.
She explains it this way: “The reason is that if someone is saying ‘ah,’ ‘uh,’ and ‘um’ numerous times in a story or report, we assume they’re improvising or unprepared. We also might see them as long-winded—you know, someone who likes to hear themselves talk—who thinks aloud rather than choosing their words. Notice how none of these impressions are flattering? So don’t distract others from your smart messages. Try to present them cleanly and clearly without too many filler noises. It's a good thing to show people you’re being selective with your words—and their time.”
Reigel says silence is better than filling a pause with sound. The “ums” and “likes” don’t add anything of substance to our talk and can hurt our credibility.
How to stop saying filler words and sounds like ‘um’ and ‘like’
The first step in silencing the fillers is to be aware of them.
If you use verbal fillers in formal presentations, you’re likely using them in everyday conversations, says Reigel. Record yourself speaking to hear what you sound like, and have a friend or partner point them out when you’re talking to them. You’re moving the unconscious habit into the conscious, which needs to happen before you can make a change.
Once you’re aware of the habit, you can substitute the “um” by actually saying a replacement word, such as “pause” or “period,” out loud.
When you’ve got the change in hand, you can switch to silently inserting the replacement word, until such time as the new habit has been established and you simply don’t use filler words anymore.
At the same time, try slowing down overall. A slower speaker can be more effective because they are intentional about their next words. Your listeners will appreciate a slower message. Those added pauses allow emphasis: It also gives your audience time to understand and consider what you’ve just said.
Read more: How to Become More Self-Aware
Don’t be too hard on yourself
If you’re struggling with changing your speaking habits, remember that there are positives related to the use of filler words. They can be used as signals to others in a meeting, for example, that you’d like to make a comment or that you’re not done speaking. They’re sort of a polite way of interrupting.
In an interview, which is a conversational setting unlike a presentation, the occasional filler word is perfectly acceptable. You will not undermine your authority; in fact, you can seem more thoughtful and relatable while still professional.
And remember that “workplace communication is getting more and more casual,” Rezvani tells us.
“That’s due in part to changing times, technology advances, and the preferences of younger generations,” she explains. “And now, COVID is bringing another level of ‘casual’ since we’re all working out of our homes. Put that all together, and it means that communication will only become more and more conversational. And more human. That will probably include more, not less, ‘uhs,’ ‘ums,’ ‘ahs,’ and conversational filler words like ‘you guys.’”
About our sources
Deborah Grayson Riegel is a keynote speaker and consultant who teaches leadership communication for Wharton Business School and Columbia Business School. She is a regular contributor for Harvard Business Review, Inc., Psychology Today, Forbes, and Fast Company. The author of Overcoming Overthinking: 36 Ways to Tame Anxiety for Work, School, and Life, she consults and speaks for clients including Amazon, BlackRock, Kraft, PepsiCo, and The United States Army. Her work has been featured in worldwide media, including Bloomberg Businessweek, Oprah Magazine, and The New York Times.
Selena Rezvani is an author and speaker dedicated to helping women carve out leadership paths on their own terms. Through her LinkedIn Learning courses on confidence and presence, her workshops, and keynotes, she trains thousands of professionals each year on how to influence like a boss—and be seen and heard.