Do you find yourself saying “um” and “ah” too often in meetings and presentations? These filler words are common for both native and non-native English speakers. They may be more acceptable in casual conversations, but when you’re delivering a speech, they can be distracting for your audience.

If you frequently speak to a crowd, learning how to stop saying “um” can help you become a more effective speaker. When you’re nervous or uncertain, your mind takes longer to organise your thoughts, which is why you resort to filler words or sounds like “um,” “so,” and “like.”

Overusing these words in your speech can make you appear less articulate and thoughtful, lowering your credibility as a public speaker. Plus, your audience might find it hard to follow your train of thought when you keep breaking up your speech with filler words.

But the truth is that it’s not easy to break the “um” habit.

According to linguists, using filler words in speech is a natural communication occurrence called the hesitation phenomenon. It happens when you use filled pauses to allow your speech to catch up with your thoughts.

The question is, if “ums” and “ahs” are natural linguistic habits, does that mean they’re unavoidable? ESL Tutoring Services shares the truth about the hesitation phenomenon as well as tips on how to reduce your verbal fillers when speaking.

Verbal Words and the Hesitation Phenomenon

A TED-Ed video explains that hesitant pauses serve a purpose in spoken communication. It states that verbal fillers provide benefits for both the audience and the speaker.

For the speaker, filler words can communicate a variety of meanings. For example, silent pauses can serve as a sign for whomever you’re speaking to that it’s their turn to talk. But a filled pause, like “um” or “ah” signals that you’re not finished talking yet. Hesitant pauses also give you time to sort your thoughts or think of the word that best conveys your meaning.

On the other hand, listeners can interpret your filled pauses as discourse markers. Discourse markers give your audience a more detailed context of your speech, which helps them understand you better.

Meaningful Verbal Fillers and Pauses

For instance, starting a sentence with “look” signals that you’re about to say something important, communicating that your audience should listen more closely.

Another example is using “I mean” to signal that you’re about to explain an idea. Also, saying “like” can have multiple functions. You can be establishing connections between thoughts, providing an example, or citing someone else’s statements or opinions.

Ultimately, verbal fillers allow your listeners to see into your thought process as you’re speaking, helping them to follow and interpret what you’re trying to say. This means that the dreaded‘like’ and ‘so’can be helpful in your speech.

However, when you overuse verbal fillers, they become crutches or what linguistics calls disfluencies. Instead of making your speech easier to understand, crutch words can get in the way of communication and distract listeners from what you’re trying to convey.

With that, your goal as a public speaker shouldn’t be to eliminate your verbal fillers. Instead, you want to focus on how you can reduce your “ums” and “ahs” and use filler words strategically in your speech.

How to Reduce “Ums” and “Ahs”

public speaking concept

Follow these techniques to avoid using filler words that don’t add value to your speech.

1. Slow down

Slowing down your speech is an effective way to lessen your fillers. When you talk too fast, it can be difficult for your speech to catch up with your thoughts, increasing your use of filler words.

Research suggests that the average person thinks at 400 words per minute, but can only speak about 125 words in the same period. This means that your thoughts are naturally quicker than your speech. And if you speak faster than normal, your mouth will have an even harder time catching up with your thought process.

The solution is to talk at a comfortable pace. When you speak slowly, you’re able to articulate your thoughts more clearly. Slowing down also improves your pronunciation and intonation, allowing you to emphasise important words and phrases. This helps your audience retain information better.

2. Embrace the pause

Eliminate your crutch words by incorporating strategic pauses in your speech. A study claims that most conversational dialogues consist of pauses that can be short (0.20 seconds), medium (0.60 seconds) or long (at least one second).But public speakers can afford to take even longer pauses.

Work strategic pauses into your speech. These filled pauses not only lessen your “ums” and “ahs”, but they also serve various purposes. You can use strategic pauses to add dramatic impact to a sentence, give your audience time to absorb an idea, or to transition to a new concept.

3. Prepare your speech

Nerves disrupt your thought process, making disjointed speech more likely. Preparing your speech can help you get over your nerves and make you feel more confident. Practising also helps you become more comfortable with your speech, preventing you from stuttering and overusing verbal fillers.

Another benefit of preparing your speech is that it lets you plan your pauses. You can identify when and how long to pause in your speech to make sure that it delivers your intended meaning. When delivering a slideshow presentation, for instance, you can pause deliberately in between slides. This lets you compose your next thought and allows your audience some time to prepare for the new insight.

4. Record yourself

Most of the time, your mind doesn’t even register your filler words as you say them. Filming or recording yourself while practising your speech allows you to catch all those instances. Once you’ve identified the parts in your speech where you tend to say “um” or “like” more often, you can think of a way to avoid them.

For example, many people subconsciously say “like” when they’re about to expound on an idea. You can catch that mistake when you watch your recording, then you can avoid it by saying “I mean” or “this means” instead.

Recording yourself also allows you to identify your crutch words, or the verbal fillers you tend to overuse. Once you know your crutches, you’ll be more aware when you’re about to say them, making it easier to break the habit.

5. Chunk your information

Lastly, chunk your sentences to establish a comfortable speech rhythm. When you’re preparing your speech, plan your short and long pauses. The long pauses are often meant to provide linguistic value, helping your audience understand you better. The short pauses, on the other hand, give you a chance to take a breath and brace for the next part of your sentence.

Planning your short pauses lets you place them in strategic parts of your presentation, giving your speech a natural cadence. When you settle into a rhythm, you’ll be able to speak more comfortably, reducing your verbal fillers.

Remember, practice is still key to improving your speaking skills. As you rehearse your speech more thoroughly and hold more public talks, you’ll be more aware of your crutches and bad oration habits. Expose yourself to more public speaking experiences to hone not only your verbal skills, but also your non-verbal communication habits.

If you’re the kind of learner who benefits from classroom-method learning, having private lessons can reduce your verbal fillers and improve your public speaking skills.

Become a Better Public Speaker with ESL Tutoring

ESL Tutoring Services provides learning programs designed to help you reach your desired fluency level. Whether you’re only starting to learn the English language or trying to improve your pronunciation, you’ll find a tutoring program that suits your learning needs.

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