Um, so, like, you know, sometimes we add unnecessary words when we speak. In casual conversation, this might seem harmless. As long as you get your point across, what’s the trouble of using a bit of filler here and there?
Here’s the rub: If you strive to eliminate filler words at work to sound more professional, but then throw caution to the wind with your language during happy hour, you’re going to have a hard time consistently keeping them out of your communication.
If you want to stop saying “um,” and “like” for good, you need to be all in. Luckily, there’s an app for that—and I used myself as a guinea pig to see if it actually worked.
As a career and leadership coach, I make a living communicating with my clients. And, in addition to that, I’m also a Toastmaster, so I’m trained to listen for fillers when I speak. Between the two, I went into this experience confident that I typically keep my filler words to a minimum. I downloaded the free Um Counter app to put myself to the test.
First, I recorded a YouTube video of myself being interviewed for LinkedIn tips and tricks. When I heard the first um, I thought that it was one of possibly a few. Then I heard the 20th, then the 30th. The app counted 41 ums, three likes, and two “ya knows!” I was shocked and realized I had to get to the bottom of this behavior. I listened to some other recordings of myself with my trusty Um Counter app in hand and noticed a very definite pattern to when I stumble in speech and insert unnecessary words.
Here are the three things I learned (and how I’m working on cutting out my filler words).
1. Being Caught Off Guard Caused Some Uhs
When I was asked questions in interviews or podcasts that I wasn’t expecting, I hemmed and hawed and sometimes hedged my answers. I feared saying the wrong thing, so I stalled with ums, uhs, and sos. Even in playing back some coaching sessions, I noticed that if the client said something and I wasn’t sure what to ask as a follow-up, my on-the-spot questions contained a ton of fillers. I did not sound convincing or confident in these situations.
The Fix: Take the Time to Think Before Responding
There’ll always be situations in which you’re caught off guard, and you’ll need to respond to something on the fly. So what’s wrong with taking a moment of silence as you formulate a well thought out answer? Nothing. Take a second (or two, or three) to compose your replies and questions in your own mind before letting them past your lips, and you’ll notice a lot fewer fillers get through.
During a phone interview or other time when you’re worried about dead air, try a classic stall and think technique like repeating the question back to the person, or saying, “That’s a great question.” Another option: Be completely honest and say, “I’d like a moment to think that over.”
2. Attempting to Be Funny Brought the Ums
I’ll admit it: I’m a bit of a class clown. I love cracking jokes and using humor in my work to make my messages more relatable. But I’m no comedienne, and when I wanted to bring the funny—unless it was a pre-planned one-liner—my jokes include a lot of ums and sos. The messages I was trying to relay through humor totally fell flat (cue sad trombone).
The Fix: Try to Say it Straight
If funny sometimes feels awkward or forced to you, just say what you’re thinking without trying to wrap it in humor. There’s much more power in stating your thoughts honestly and confidently, rather than trying to find a way to deliver them with a punchline. When you feel assured about what you are saying, you’ll notice that your filler words will significantly reduce. You won’t even worry that this is coming at the expense of losing a few laughs.
3. Winging it Resulted in Some Sos
As a Toastmaster, I pride myself on being able to speak on topics on the fly. You need someone to emcee your event last minute or introduce your keynote speaker? I’m your gal. I suppose I was resting on these laurels, and misguidedly so. In hearing myself speak on recordings, I realized that in an effort to be spontaneous, I was sacrificing my expert status with every um, so, and ya know that came out of my mouth (and there were a lot of them).
The Fix: Properly Prepare in Order to Sound Like an Expert
Preparedness is absolutely key, whether you’re booked for a last minute job interview, asked to speak at a standing-room-only conference, or offering your two cents on a YouTube channel. As fun and exhilarating as it can be to wing it, knowing your subject matter inside and out will support you in speaking to it with confidence and conviction, allowing filler words to fall to the wayside.
And for the times when you really aren’t prepared (like those last minute requests to fill in at event), take the fleeting moments before you stand up and speak to write down your thoughts for an introduction, three talking points, and something for a conclusion—even if all you have is a cocktail napkin. These can serve as the anchor for your impromptu speech, allowing you to keep your talk organized and logical. Leaning on this structure, you’ll feel much more confident standing up to speak—even at a moment’s notice!
If you’d like to sound more convincing when you speak, I definitely recommend downloading the Um Counter app. It will tell you (honestly) what your colleagues won’t—exactly how many ums and uhs you’re saying, ya know?