Are you filling your presentations with filler words?

A lot of the words we fall back on when we’re making a presentation or speech, especially if we feel under pressure, don’t actually serve any useful purpose. In fact they are obstacles to understanding and barriers to engagement.

What are these lazy, good-for-nothing words? Here are a few:

  • You know
  • Right
  • Like
  • Well
  • Um
  • Ah

They are filler words. Sometimes, when we are nervous, or distracted, or unprepared, we lean on one of these filler words. They are like a verbal crutch, buying us time while we search for the right word or phrase. We toss in a filler word or two while we collect our thoughts.

The trouble is, too many ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and ‘you knows’ and our audience starts to disengage. The filler words act like speed bumps on the road; everything is going smoothly and then – bang – you’re hitting the brakes to avoid wrecking the suspension. You accelerate away smoothly and – bang – another speed bump. Before you know it your passengers (the audience) are looking out for the speed bumps rather than enjoying the scenery.

The second problem with filler words is that, if you have too many of them in your speech, people start to question your credibility. If you’re the expert, why are you apparently so often so lost for words?

And there’s a third problem, too. Audiences want to listen to a natural, conversational delivery. They want you to be authentic, as if you were talking with friends. So they’ll forgive a few hesitations. But if you fall back on the filler word crutch too often, they’ll start to think you are distracted or disengaged… and before you know it, your audience is distracted and disengaged.

How often do you throw in a filler word? The experts at Quantified Communications analysed 4000 samples to find out how often – on average – speakers throw in a ‘you know’ or an ‘um’ or a ‘like’, and how that compares with the optimum rate that audiences are prepared to tolerate.

Based on their sample, the data analysts at Quantified Communications discovered that the average speaker uses five fillers every minute. That’s one every 12 seconds. And here’s the scary statistic: five filler words every minute is five times more than most audiences are comfortable with. The optimum frequency for filler words is one per minute.

Noah Zandan, CEO of Quantified Communications, writing in the Harvard Business Review, puts it like this: “If you want your audience to buy in to your message, you have to make it clear, logical and easy to follow. Unfortunately, filtering through crutch words to catch the important parts requires more cognitive effort than audiences are willing to put forth.”

But, like, don’t panic. Um. All is not – you know – lost.

The remedy is relatively easy. And if you are prone to over-reliance on filler words, you can turn a weakness into a strength.

Convert the filler words into pauses.

Instead of leaning on your verbal crutch of ‘you know’ or ‘ah’, simply do nothing. Hesitate. Drag the hesitation into a full blown pause. Most speakers don’t pause anywhere near enough.

Less-experienced speakers tend to rush through presentations; it’s almost as if your perception of time is distorted. And, of course, we’re been socialized to avoid embarrassing pauses in conversations.

In conversations, we tend to speak at somewhere between 125 and 150 words per minute. TV and radio reports can rattle along at 150 – 175 words per minute, which is at the upper end of the range where people can comfortably distinguish and process the words.

At the other end of the scale, some professional speakers average 100 or 120 words per minute. They are comfortable with bigger pauses, because they know the pause helps in so many ways:

  • It gives the audience a chance to absorb information
  • It provides emphasis by drawing attention to what went before or what follows
  • It gives the speaker a chance to take stock of the audience reaction
  • It gives the speaker a chance to take a breath and calm any nerves

So the remedy is easy. The tricky bit is in acknowledging that you are using too many filler words.

Unless someone tells us, we are often unaware of how many times we slip in a ‘you know’ or an ‘um’. So we suggest you video one of your presentations. Play it back and pay particular attention to the ‘ums’ and the ‘ahs’.

The more you are aware of using filler words, the easier it becomes to sense when you are about to use one – and substitute a small pause instead. It may feel strange at first. But persevere. Before you know it, you will get comfortable with pauses.

And audiences will love you for it.