4 June 2024

Three steps to banishing those ‘Ums’ and ‘Ahs’

| Kim Treasure
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Woman speaking with three other women

Filler words are annoying and distracting, and dilute the power of what you are saying. Photo: File.

Sophie Thompson has suggestions for minimising meaningless filler words that often take away from the points you are trying to make in conversations and speeches.

Um, like, so, er they have all slipped into everyday vocabulary and they’re known as hesitation or filler words.

There may be several reasons we use them — to fill a silence, out of habit, or we think it has meaning for what we are saying.

I’m a huge ”like” user; I just, like, think, like, I don’t even hear myself saying it anymore.

My dad has often pointed it out to me and when I try to explain why I use it, I say it even more.

Here are some techniques I’m using to try to stop using ‘’like’’, and the same steps can be taken to overcome any words or phrases you use that don’t add meaning to your message.

Film yourself: If you’re anything like me, you have no idea how much you use filler words — it’s as if our minds don’t even register them as words.

Our minds know they add no real value to our speech; we just need to train our mouths to agree.

Begin filming yourself when you’re talking to family or friends so that you can hear what you sound like in everyday conversations. This is the best way to become aware of the filler words you use.

Of course, when referring to ‘’like’’ as a filler word, this does not include using it as a simile, such as “This cupcake tastes like heaven”.

Once you’ve identified your filler words, you know to listen out for them. You can also think about why you use them.

Break the habit: Like any habit you want to quit, you need to commit yourself to it.

Start small and try to eliminate, or significantly decrease, your use of hesitation words in everyday conversation.

When you hear yourself say one, backtrack and replace it with the word you actually mean to say, or repeat the last couple of words without the filler word.

The more you do this, the quicker you’ll train your mind away from them.

It’s important to try to understand why you use filler words. You might just need to slow down.

When we speak too fast, we are more likely to take a moment to process our thoughts and use words such as ‘’um’’ or ‘‘like’’ while our mind catches up with what we are saying.

If you’re losing your train of thought, don’t be afraid to have a moment of silence.

You might think this is awkward in mid-conversation, but silence is always longer in our heads than it is in reality.

In fact, pausing can strengthen the message you are putting across, especially in formal situations.

Practise in a formal setting: Once you’ve become more aware of filler words in conversations, it’s time to test yourself in formal situations, where you’re more likely to use them.

A perfect example is presenting at a conference — something that 74 per cent of people fear.

The best way of minimising your ‘’ums’’ and ‘’ahs’’ is to be familiar with the speech you are about to deliver.

You need to know when to talk about certain points, and what you want to include in your message without memorising a script.

Using a script can be detrimental to your speech for several reasons, the main one being that you’re more likely to use hesitation words.

You might feel safer memorising a script, but if you lose your place, you won’t know what’s coming next because you’ve learnt the script in a certain order.

When you don’t know what to say, that’s when you’ll start … um, like, getting … er, mixed up, you know?

The best way I practise for this situation is by using exercises, such as the ones we have developed in VirtualSpeech.

This way you can practise your speech and receive instant feedback on your use of filler words, both for video and in-person presentations.

Practising these exercises is more realistic than imagining yourself in front of an audience, because the simulation makes you feel like you’re actually speaking to an audience who is staring at you.

Remember that everyone uses hesitation words, so it’s not the end of the world if you still say the occasional one here and there. The important thing is that you kick the habit of saying them in every conversation.

They dilute the power of what you’re saying and, let’s be honest, they can be annoying and distracting for the person you’re talking to as well.

Do you have any tips on avoiding hesitation words?

Sophie Thompson co-founded VirtualSpeech in 2016 with the aim of helping people practise speaking in a safe environment that builds their skills and confidence for real-world situations. She can be contacted at VirtualSpeech.com.

This article first appeared on the VirtualSpeech website.

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