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Um, Uh, Like…. Reducing the Filler Words in Your Speech or Presentations

Are filler words bad? Short answer- not always. Filler words are a necessary function for interpersonal communication. In one-on-one or small group communication, they serve a purpose in the concept of speech reciprocity. Essentially, filler words signal to the listener that you are still completing a thought and that it is not their turn to speak. But when you are giving a public speech, presentation, or lecture, filler words can have devastating consequences to your credibility.

During a presentation or when giving a speech, “the floor is all yours”. The audience generally is not seeking to interrupt and filler words begin to have negative consequences. We have all seen (and sometimes have been) that struggling speaker who uses um’s or uh’s every three seconds. Not only is this distracting and painful for an audience to sit through, but it can also kill the speaker’s credibility. The use of filler words signals to an audience that the speaker is not confident and is struggling to formulate their ideas. This can make the audience choose to leave rather than sit and listen for one more painful sequence of um…uh…ah… to come pouring out.

So, how can we use Behavioral Intelligence to reduce our filler words in public speaking?

  1. Increase awareness – The first step in changing any behavior is to become aware of the situations that elicit the behavior. Do you find yourself having more filler words at the beginning of your speech or presentation? In the end? On topics that you are not as comfortable with? When do you feel anxiety? Noticing these triggers allows us to address the behaviors.
  2. Introduce pauses and silence – We often use filler words to allow our brain to catch up to what we are saying, transition to a new thought, or to think through a question or process as we are talking. The best way to get past this is to pause. We generally think that pausing is bad because we find silence to be uncomfortable. However, if you watch someone like Obama (politics aside) and you will see this demonstrated exceptionally well. He chunks his information and uses pauses and silence in a way that makes his message extremely impactful. If you want additional information, this article helps explain how pauses can help eliminate filler words.
    Remember: Silence and pausing in a speech feel 10x longer to the speaker than it does to the audience. If the speaker uses it intentionally, it can make a powerful impact on what the speaker is conveying.
  3. Use body language to your advantage – If you’re grasping for thoughts and need the pause or a moment of silence, talk with your facial expressions or gestures. Raising your eyebrows, making strong eye contact, using gestures to imply that you are pondering the thought (Think of bringing your hand to your chin and looking upward as an example). All of these can convey the inherent message of “I am thinking” or “Stay with me while my brain catches up with my words” without having to fill the dead space.
  4. Practice, Practice, Practice – The more you practice, the more fluid and natural the presentation or speech will flow. Remember that the information that you are delivering is coming from an expert. Take your time, take a deep breath, and let it flow as though it is a conversation with your friends, colleagues, and peers. This will help to reduce your anxiety which will then lessen the need for filler words. When practicing, record yourself. It may be painful to start (it was for me), but when you see yourself, you will be able to better identify the areas of the presentation or the situations that breed more filler words.

Filler words can have a devastating impact on a speaker’s credibility. Using these tips and tactics, you can start reducing these unnecessary distractions and elevate your prowess in the public speaking world. If you want more custom support, Coeus Creative Group offers a 10 session coaching program to take your public speaking to new heights, contact us today to learn more!

Stay tuned for an upcoming blog with behaviorally intelligent tips to reduce anxiety before, during, and after your public speaking!


Jay Johnson is an internationally renowned speaker specializing in behavior and organizational development. Jay has given keynotes and workshops in 20 countries across 4 continents, empowering audiences with a unique perspective on behavior, communication, and leadership. Connect with Jay on LinkedIn.


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