If you’ve ever listened to someone, like, pepper everything they say with, like, a never-ending litany of likes, ums, or ahs, you know it can be distracting and—whether fair or not—can diminish what they’re saying. We all occasionally lean on verbal crutches, or what academics call “disfluencies” when we’re nervous, distracted, or at a loss for what to say next. But when these verbal tics dominate our speech, the message we’re trying to communicate can suffer. And most of us do it—a lot.
According to the Harvard Business Review, “using research that incorporates behavioral science, AI, and data, the people science firm Quantified Communications determined that the optimum frequency is about one filler per minute, but the average speaker uses five fillers per minute—or, one every twelve seconds.”
If you suspect you may use too many filler words in your everyday speech, here’s how to curb the habit.
Why you should use fewer filler words
Some amount of fillers are to be expected, but when they’re used excessively, your audience may lose interest and becomes disengaged. Filler words can make us sound nervous, distracted, or worse, inauthentic. And, says Harvard Business Review, most people will give up trying to distinguish your main message when it’s disguised by all those superfluous ums:
“If you want your audience to buy into 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.”
Sometimes our crutch words are used as an expression of solidarity though, in which case adherence with a group of peers obviously comes with less risk.
Record yourself once to find the words you use most
The first step is recognition of the problem. Some verbal crutches have become so commonplace in our speaking that we don’t realize we’re saying them. Film or voice record yourself talking casually to family or friends and play it back to become aware of the sneaky words plaguing your speech. Listen for: Like, uh, um, ah, er, ok, so, well, ya know, whatever, and know what I mean. These are the usual suspects. (Note: There’s a difference between using “like” as a filler, and using it to introduce a simile—the desert air feels like a hair dryer.)
Figure out when you use filler words
After you’ve isolated your primary filler words, determine when you use them the most. Is it when you’re tired? Presenting? Put on the spot during meetings? What about if you’re on a date, navigating small talk with strangers, or trying to impress a new boss? It may happen when you’re more relaxed, hanging with friends, for example, and don’t have to be “on.” Notice what situations trigger the onslaught of filler words. Once you’ve noticed what your biggest offenders are and when you use them most, you can tackle how to stop.
Give yourself small speaking challenges
In the comfort of your own home where the stakes are low, challenge yourself to speak extemporaneously on random subjects for one to two minutes. As Ramona J. Smith, Toastmasters’ 2018 World Champion of Public Speaking, told Real Simple, “Practice impromptu speaking during your free time. Choose a random topic or object and speak off the cuff about it for at least one minute, challenging yourself to refrain from using crutch words.”
Enlist a friend to call it out
Smith also recommends having a friend or trusted family member count and monitor how often you’re using verbal crutches in casual speaking. Next time you’re together one-on-one, ask them to keep track of how many filler words you use. “Seeing how often you use crutch words will raise your awareness of how much you are actually saying them,” Smith says.
Embrace the pauses
Much of the time we rely on fillers, it’s because we’re verbally thinking—often at the beginning of a statement or when transitioning between two ideas. When trying to think of what to say next, we fill up the dead space to avoid an uncomfortable silence.
To reduce your reliance on filler words, one of the best things you can do is embrace the pause. Slow down, collect your thoughts, and think, so you can respond on a powerful, confident note, rather than on an “um.” As Harvard Business Extension writes, “It is important that you don’t begin speaking until you are ready. Pause, think, answer.” While this is easier said than done, remember that well-placed pauses can convey self-assuredness and build suspense—rhetorical tools that make the speaker look better, not worse.
Keep sentences short and write for the ear (not the eye)
Another way to speak more fluently is to keep your sentences short, avoiding compound sentences as well as any vocabulary or expressions you have a tendency to trip over. “Research has shown that when you reduce your mental processing load, you’re more likely to increase your fluency,” writes communications expert Lisa Marshall for Toastmasters. When preparing to deliver a speech, she recommends writing “for the ear, not the eye,” including starting from your spoken word, then transcribing what you say.