A “filler word” is a sound, word, or phrase, usually meaningless, used as a pause or hesitation in speaking. Common filler words include:
- you know
- kind of
We all use filler words and research has found that, on average, every 17th spoken word is a filler word (or about 6% of spoken words). Use of some filler words is totally normal and expected, but too many can be distracting and/or harm the credibility of the speaker
Why We Use Filler Words
Why do we use filler words? Experts have various explanations.
One common reason is nervousness. Whether giving a speech, presenting to a client or talking in a professional setting, filler words are more common where the speaker is experiencing anxiety about talking and saying the right thing.
Another reason according to researchers at Columbia University is that filler words are used when the speaker is searching for the next word or phrase. To test this they tracked the number of filler words used by professors in various academic disciplines. They found that lecturers in science and mathematics, where the subject matter limits word choice, used far fewer filler words (1.39 per minute) than those in humanities (4.85 per minute) where the vocabulary is much larger.
Related IFOD: Why Do We Say “That’s a Great Question?”
Finally, we have been conditioned to fill hesitations or pauses with words to “hold the conversational floor” even when we don’t have something to say. Filler words can signal that we’re still speaking.
How to Reduce Use of Filler Words
How to use fewer filler words, especially in professional settings? Researchers writing in the Harvard Business Review recommend the following steps:
- Become aware of your use of filler words. Notice them as you talk. Consider recording yourself and reviewing your conversation for filler words. As you become aware of use of filler words while talking pair them with small actions. “Every time you catch yourself saying ‘like,’ for example, tap your leg. Or have a family member or close friend monitor your filler words and bring your attention to them with a clap or snap.”
- Once you’ve become aware of filler words work on replacing them with silence. It is fine (and preferable usually) to have a pause rather than a filler.
- Preparation is key before professional conversations or presentations. “Nerves are one of the biggest reasons people overuse vocal fillers. The less prepared you are, the more nervous you’ll be, which will likely cause you to speak too quickly, trip over your words, and forget what’s next.”
Based on my research, it seems that the key is to become comfortable with pauses. Particularly in presentations, use of pauses can add to the power of a presentation whereas a filler word likely will distract.
In my experience, I would add that the silence you hear in your head is much longer that what your audience perceives. So it is okay to pause and not make your audience uncomfortable.