Erasing the Speaker’s Curse: Filler Words

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Ramona DiAsola was the newest member of the training team in a large multinational insurance company.  Attending her first conference, her supervisor selected Ramona to make a presentation on a new product the company had launched. She was told approximately 250-350 people would be in attendance. Having spoken before smaller groups in college she felt comfortable with the assignment, especially because Ramona had been a member of the team developing the new product. She checked all the perfunctory boxes one needs in making a speech: PowerPoint uploaded to her laptop … a pre-check of her presentation room for lighting and mic … solid notes to offer additional info … a perfect suit. It was time, and Ramona began: “Um, hello everyone, I, uh, am so glad you are here! You know, our new Forward Pass Savings Plan is, like, the best type on the market, right?  What I’m trying to say is, we have compared this program to, um, like programs, and …” Ramona went on like this for 35 minutes. Thinking she did a great job Ramona was surprised when she received only a lukewarm response; her supervisor, likewise, was not pleased. Unfortunately, Ramona did what so many who speak to others do: using filler words and phrases; these not only take away from the message but also give a poor impression of the speaker and the organization being represented. This never has to occur: one can give a stellar oral presentation that is glossy, no fillers to be found.

In the world of public speaking most folks thrust into this role are nervous and anxious, for good reason. They have had little to no experience talking in front of an audience (and by “audience” it can mean 10 or more individuals), and know they will be on display. For it is not only what they say on which others will pass judgment but also on body language and simply the way someone looks. Yet history is awash with speakers not in the best shape; however, their words were mesmerizing. Einstein was known for his ragtag look of clothes, but no one seemed to notice when he spoke. It is that next category where Ramona faltered – the use of filler words – that so many have learned to overcome, giving audiences messages and information and ideas that were focused through a smooth and unfettered delivery.

It is here where third person must be abandoned and first person takes over: I was a professional speaker for seven  years (giving hundreds of seminars/webinars and dozens of keynotes) and trained thousands in the art of public speaking. I know a thing or two about how to get rid of filler words, and want to pass those tips onto you so you don’t have a Ramona experience. Let me be frank: there is no magic amulet, no 60-minute cure; to do this takes dedicated and ongoing practice. But I assure you: put in the time and follow the guidance I offer and the “devils of public speaking” – “um,” “uh,” “right, “you know,” etc. – will never be heard by any audience.

These are the steps …

  • Give a speech as you normally would: have someone in the room to record it (preferably on video).
  • Study the recording: what filler words were used and when were they used; what problems can be seen with body language.  Ask for candid feedback from the person in the room.
  • Understand why filler words are used: the brain wants to fill in empty space while it is thinking what to say.
  • Know that pauses are fine in public speaking: audiences don’t notice small pauses, but they do notice filler words.  
  • With this information give the same speech, in front of the same person, once again recording: when a filler word or phrase comes to mind simply pause, gather your thoughts, then continue. 
  • The biggest body language problem is what is known as “conductor hands” – flailing about as if leading an orchestra. A neat trick: give the speech with hands at the side, tied down with a piece of string or a large rubber band. The more this is done the more the body gets used to not using hands (when to use them: making an important point)
  • Join a local speaker’s club.  There will be others with similar problems, and knowing that regular meetings are held will keep the practice alive.
  • Use a strong voice – and look at the audience. The most important piece of advice: Either  you own the audience or the audience owns you!  When the audience feels you are in charge you ARE in charge. A funny thing also happens: filler words don’t come as often.

Ramona was disheartened, but she promised herself – and her supervisor – she would do better.  This opportunity came in five months, and during that time Ramona used the above steps. She stepped out in front of 600 folks eager to hear her words, and the applause when she finished put a smile on Ramona’s face. Not only had she aced her presentation (and her supervisor told Ramona he was amazed: not one filler word!) but Ramona was also tapped to teach public speaking to others in her company.  Ramona had become, after much practice, a star on stage, something anyone can achieve! It takes that dedicated and ongoing practice, but the end result – as Ramona discovered – is a wonderful feeling of satisfaction and enjoyment in giving a speech.

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