In my previous life as a young attorney, a senior lawyer once called me into his office and shut the door. â€œJoey,â€ he said. â€œI want to give you some feedback on how you handled yourself in that meeting today.â€
I braced myself.Â â€œYou did fine,â€ he said, â€œThe client seemed satisfied. Â But I think I counted 25 â€œumsâ€ in five minutes. It doesnâ€™t sound good.â€
Filler words like â€œumâ€ and â€œerâ€ make us sound unsure and even ignorant.Â Yet with focus and the help of our brainâ€™s â€œreticular activation systemâ€ you can eliminate filler words.
â€œUmsâ€ make us sound uncertain and ignorant
Linguists posit that we use filler words to maintain a stream of vocal sound. Weâ€™re afraid that if we get quiet, someone will interrupt us and weâ€™ll lose our â€œconversational turn.â€ Â And filler words vary with the language.Â English has â€œuhâ€ and â€œerâ€.Â Spanish and Italian have â€œe.â€Â Mandarin Chinese speakers say “zhege zhege zhege”.
Regardless of the language, â€œfiller wordsâ€ are universally seen as signs of uncertainty and even ignorance.Â In Russian, filler words are called â€œvermin words.â€Â
One social scientist has shown than the words make us sound less intelligent.Â Robert Gifford,Â Ph.D., of the University of Victoria in British Columbia., taped high school kids answering tough questions and then played the tapes for other students. The students that avoided the â€œuhsâ€ were perceived to be smarter.
To eliminate filler-words, first you have to notice them.
Most people donâ€™t even hear their filler words. When that senior lawyer told me that I was saying â€œumâ€ during that client meeting, I had no idea. I didnâ€™t hear the words.
Why donâ€™t we hear the words?Â It has to do with our â€œreticular activation system.â€Â This is the part of our brain that filters out unnecessary sensory data.Â If weâ€™re driving down the road, we canâ€™t pay attention to every sensory input that passes through our line of sight. Otherwise, weâ€™d get distracted and crash. Â Our reticular activation system helps us stay focused on whatâ€™s important. Â Similarly, we donâ€™t hear every â€œumâ€ or â€œerâ€.
How can we notice the fillers? Â We can program our reticular activation system to â€œlet inâ€ certain things.Â When I bought a silver Honda Accord several years ago, I immediately began seeing silver Accords everywhere.Â I had programmed my brain to â€œlet inâ€ Honda Accords.Â Similarly, you can program your brain to notice the â€œumsâ€ and â€œersâ€. Put a rubber band around your wrist as a reminder.
Once you notice the words, pause and force yourself to speak faster
Once you start noticing the words, the rest is easy.Â When you feel a filler word coming, just pause.Â Close your lips as you figure what to say next. That is what I did and it worked.Â In about three weeks, I had largely eliminated my filler words. Weâ€™ve given this same advice to our clients for years with great results.
And try speaking faster. I was working with the Chief Financial Officer for a cement company who spoke extremely slowly and threw in lots of filler words. He seemed to be measuring out every word. And when he couldnâ€™t come up with the perfect word, heâ€™d say â€œuhâ€ as he scanned his mental dictionary. It was maddening.
When we made him speak faster, he reduced the fillers.Â Speaking faster eliminates filler words by giving you less time to substitute the â€œuhsâ€ and â€œers.â€
Donâ€™t let filler words â€œclutterâ€ up your speech and make you sound uncertain and ignorant.Â With just a little focus, you can be sounding smooth and confident.