My jaws clenched every time she did it. It was an incessant downpour. Outright ridiculous. I looked around the class to see if anyone else was catching wind of what was happening. Should someone do something?
Sitting in the Public Speaking 101 lecture hall, my classmates and I listened to our guest speaker repeat the word “like” approximately 47 times in her 5 minute pitch. She was also kind enough to generously sprinkle in the occasional “um, so, yeah…” We had just covered a chapter on what not to do when delivering a speech, and the entire classroom was doing a collective facepalm.
While leaving the lecture hall, I quickly realized that I had not absorbed even a morsel of what our guest speaker was trying to tell us. Her main argument was almost peripheral to the ceaseless onslaught of filler words. But let’s be honest — we can all relate to this story.
I was so struck by the complete demolition of our speaker’s credibility that I decided to investigate the use of filler words. Turns out, terms like you know, so, like, oh, well, um, yeah, I mean…” are actually used in languages across the globe. While some researchers attribute their widespread use as a “delay device” in conversation (offering the speaker time to collect his/her thoughts before continuing speech), most linguists are still not convinced that they’re necessary, or even useful for that matter.
But even if they’re not particularly useful, that doesn’t that make them harmful, right? Alas, it seems that even on a subconscious level, we are indeed judged harshly by listeners for our use of fillers. A study from 1995 found that people who avoided using filler words (or “disfluencies”) were rated as significantly more favorable speakers by study volunteers than speakers who used words like “um”. This occurred even when participants were not aware that the speaker was using disfluencies.
It’s odd, then, when you realize that the average person incurs one disfluency for every 4.4 seconds of spontaneous speech. It’s like we’ve accepted this cultural norm that everybody condemns, yet still adheres to. And if you think about it, it’s pretty intuitive — a conversation partner who consistently uses filler words is assumed to be either nervous, out of place, or clueless as to what they’re talking about. While throwing a ‘like’ or ‘um’ here or there won’t kill your image, your credibility takes a micro-hit each time you blurt nonsense to avoid the silence of thought.
And that’s exactly what it is — I believe the reason people use filler words is because they fear silence. I did too, for a while. But when I started making a conscious effort to tidy up my talk, it wasn’t the fancy words or exaggerated intonations that made the biggest difference; it was training myself to avoid using filler words that people responded to most strongly.
Silence in speech is powerful. A well-placed pause allows words to ring louder, linger longer, and accentuate your point. It gives time for your listener to digest what’s being said. Confident leaders and seasoned public speakers utilize silence effectively to dramatize their messages. Politicians, salesmen and public figureheads are all taught this important technique. Next time you listen to a strong conversationalist, notice how they establish a linguistic rhythm. Notice how each spoken word is calculated and purposeful. And most of all, notice how they empower themselves with silence, rather than shy away from it. No wonder we dedicated an entire lecture to employing the “Purposeful Pause” in our Public Speaking 101 class.
Take Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s famous Lincoln Memorial speech as an example. His address was clocked at 92 words per minute. For reference, the average American speaks at 150 wpm. While speaking slower is not inherently advantageous, Dr. King undoubtedly knew this secret: deliberate delivery is captivating.
So, what’s the best way to start breaking the habit? Reading this article is a good start, as developing a self-awareness about your use of filler words is an important first step. Leveraging the power of operant conditioning, you may have family members or friends clap loudly, smirk, or call you out each time you say “um”, “like”, “y’know”, or any of those other meaningless filler phrases. Simply telling somebody that you’re trying to cut these words out will also make you more aware of using them.
If you’re uncomfortable asking somebody, try to cue yourself (whether verbally, physically or mentally) each time you slip out a disfluence. The goal is that by conditioning yourself to become hyper-aware of each filler phrase, you can begin to intentionally replace those phrases with a moment to make an impact.
Of course, since it’s 2017, there’s also an iPhone app for monitoring filler words. LikeSo claims to be your “Personal Speech Coach”, offering a creative approach to tighten up your elocution (with 5 star reviews to boot).
In Ancient Greece, oratory skills were thought to separate the lay-people from the elite. Debate was a hallmark of a Greek education. In fact, every man was expected to stand at the Assembly to persuade his countrymen to vote for or against certain legislation. Unfortunately, American schools don’t dedicate the same time or resources to teaching students how to develop rhetoric. Yet in the real world, our ability to articulate effectively has an enormous impact on our success.
Whether in your next presentation, interview, meeting, audition, date or debate, learning to ditch filler words is one of the most transformative ways we can upgrade our speaking presence. Take home point: you know that annoying person in your office who, between their “um’s”, “like’s”, and “well’s”, doesn’t even seem to leave space for breathing while they talk? Don’t be that person. Even a little bit.
Nate Macanian is a health coach, wellness educator, and entrepreneur from New York. He is a behavioral science graduate from the University of Michigan and founder of Planting Seed of Mindfulness. Nate currently lives in San Francisco, leading a nation-wide collegiate meditation project called Calm College.