When you feel nervous on stage, it’s natural to turn to a filler word (such as “um,” “well,” or “so”) to pause and collect your thoughts.
Filler words “appear in every language and every culture,” says Steven Cohen, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Baltimore. It’s easy to understand why. When we need a moment to think, a quick interjection of an “um” feels like it can do wonders.
However, relying too much on filler words can signal to the audience that a speaker is inarticulate or nervous, writes Noah Zandan, the chief executive at Quantified Communications.
A great public speaker uses about one filler word per minute, but the average speaker uses one every 12 seconds, or about five fillers per minute, according to an analysis of over 4,000 speech samples by the company.
Fillers “impede our ability to speak with power” and “become interrupters that detract from our message,” says Cohen.
When you feel flustered on stage, instead of using a filler word, don’t say anything, recommends Zandan. The average speaker doesn’t pause often enough, he argues. Well-placed pauses can serve the same role as a filler word: giving you a moment to collect your thoughts and calm your nerves. Pauses can also emphasize a point or add suspense to your speech.
When speakers avoid pauses, it’s often because they’re uncomfortable with silence, Zandan writes. But, he argues, a pause is better than a filler word because a filler word makes you sound nervous, whereas a pause makes you sound confident. He outlines three steps to use fewer filler words and take more pauses.
Step 1: Identify your crutch words. Videotape your next speech and write down the filler words you use most often. In your daily conversation, listen for your filler words. Each time you use a fillers, tap your leg or ask a friend to clap, recommends Zandan. Pairing your crutch words with a sound or movement will help bring them to your attention.
Step 2: Get comfortable with silence. When you feel yourself tempted to say a filler, take a pause instead. To practice pausing, record yourself talking about your day and avoid any crutch words, he recommends.
Step 3: Practice. Speakers tend to use fillers words when they’re nervous. The more you practice your presentation, the less nervous you’ll be and the less likely you need any crutch words, argues Zandan. Run through your speech at least three times before you present to an audience to build your confidence, he writes.
And get comfortable with the space you plan to present in. Every detail of the stage and its environment should be familiar to you before delivering your speech there, says Keith Yamashita, a leadership consultant. This includes things like the seating configuration, microphone, and how to plug in a laptop and start your presentation, if applicable (Baral, Quartz, 7/25/16; Yamashita, Unstuck, accessed 8/24/17; Zandan, Harvard Business Review, 8/1/18).