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How filler words are barriers to effective communication

Thursday 15th June 2023 - GMT

Do you, um, have a problem with, like, you know, filler words when you’re speaking?

Estimates suggest that the average speaker uses a ‘filler word’ every 12 seconds, but overuse of ‘ums’, ‘ahs’ and other words or sounds can be a real barrier to effective communication. Reducing filler words can allow you to speak fluently and confidently in a way that communicates your message to your intended audience in the most impactful way possible.

What are filler words? 

Filler words are any words or sounds that we use to mask a pause in our speech, indicating to the listener that we haven’t finished speaking.

In English, commonly used filler words and phrases are ‘um,’ ‘er,’ ‘ah,’ ‘like,’ ‘you know,’ ‘I mean,’ and ‘so’, and are often used together in combinations. They can be thought of as a verbalisation of our thought process. We use them to fill in the space when we don’t know what we are going to say next, as they show the audience that we’re still thinking about our idea.

What are the negative effects of using filler words? 

Using too many filler words when you’re speaking can negatively affect your credibility, whether you’re giving a presentation, speech or even as part of a simple conversation. Stumbling over your words can make you look ill-prepared or nervous, giving the impression that you are unsure of what you are saying or arguing. Filler words also disrupt the flow of your speech, causing audiences to disengage and limiting audience comprehension by making your ideas more difficult to understand. If you’re trying to persuade audiences or keep them engaged with emotional stories or important research, filler words can often dilute your message, making it much less impactful.

Why do people use filler words?

There are a number of reasons why people use too many filler words. These include:

Nervousness and speaking too fast

Some estimates suggest that 75% of people experience some degree of glossophobia or fear of speaking in public, so if you feel nervous when speaking, you’re certainly not alone. And while being nervous itself isn’t a problem (a certain amount of nerves can help us focus), it can cause us to speak too quickly as we try to rattle through our speech to get it over with. However, when our speech is too fast, it can be difficult for our brain to ‘catch up’ and identify what the next word, phrase or statement is going to be. This causes us to use filler words to plug the ‘thinking time’ gap.

Not preparing

When you haven’t prepared what you are going to say, you can often find yourself at the end of a sentence or idea and not knowing where to go next. This can mean we struggle to communicate the essence of an idea concisely or have difficulty summarising or linking concepts together. This, again, is where we tend to use filler words to try and buy ourselves time to think over our ideas and find different ways to express them, but for an audience, this can come across as distracting, unconvincing or difficult to follow.

Worrying about being judged

Filler words can sometimes arise as a result of feeling awkward and under pressure when we are in the limelight. Making eye contact with people can increase this feeling of being in the spotlight and sometimes makes speakers feel uncomfortable, but when we are constantly focused on ourselves and how others may judge our ideas, it can cause us to stumble and hesitate, plugging the gap with filler words.

Handling objections (and not knowing what to say!)

If you are faced with an objection or a difficult conversation, it can sometimes be difficult to know how to respond immediately. This is another situation in which people tend to use filler words, as their brains try to process a response quickly – but again, this can come across as being shifty or lacking in conviction.

How to avoid using filler words

You will never be able to avoid using filler words altogether (unless you memorise and rehearse a speech word for word – but this isn’t practical to do for every business meeting or conversation). Even expert speakers use some fillers, with the best public speakers tending to use a filler word around once per minute (compared to the average of one every 12 seconds, or around five per minute).

Here are some steps that can help you to decrease your filler words and speak more fluently and confidently.

Become aware of your own speech habits

The first step to reducing filler words is to identify how and when you tend to use them. To do this, you will need to either have a colleague or mentor analyse you when speaking, or you can record yourself in action. Try to work out what filler words you tend to use and if there are any situations where you use them more than others. How do you feel in those situations? What causes you to use fillers then? Bringing awareness to your speech will help you to focus on the areas that you can improve upon whilst also becoming more deliberate in your choices when speaking, ultimately giving your more confidence and control.

Slow down your pace

The easiest way to decrease your use of filler words is to slow down your pace when speaking. This will bring fluency to your speech, as you will have more time to focus on what you’re about to say next. It will give you more control over your words and will make you look more confident. Slowing down also has the added bonus of making your ideas clearer for the people listening to you. People need more time than you may think to process ideas when listening, and so slowing down will give people that space to really take in your arguments or suggestions, making them more impactful.


Harnessing the power of the pause is an excellent rhetorical strategy.  Just like slowing your speech down, well-timed and deliberate pauses can be helpful to your audience, as it gives people time to think and process (or write notes). When you have something important to say, you can pause before or after it. If you feel the need to use a filler word, practice saying it silently in your head instead of out loud.

Pausing also gives you, the speaker, time to think about what you’re going to say next. This is particularly effective when dealing with unexpected questions or objections. Pause, take the time to process the question or comment, and don’t be afraid of buying yourself extra time by repeating the question back or asking for additional clarification. And remember the golden rule when pausing: it may seem like a very long time to you, but it’s generally not for your audience, so embrace the power of silence!

Preparation and rehearsal

Preparing and structuring your content in advance can help to avoid rambling speeches that are difficult to follow. Even if you only have something very brief to say, plan it out in advance as much as possible, and rehearse it out loud. Get used to what your voice is going to sound like when you’re speaking. This should include thinking about how you are going to transition between different parts of your speech. Think about phrases that you can use to segue from one idea to the next, such as ‘let’s move on to,’ ‘that brings us to,’ etc.

Rehearsing in front of a friend, colleague or family member can also help, especially if you feel distracted when making eye contact. Get used to the feeling of speaking whilst looking at someone else, and you will be much better armed to speak fluently and confidently when you do it for real.

Need extra support? Coaching can help

If you feel that you need extra support in improving your business communication skills, then coaching sessions can help you.

Get in touch with us today to discuss how we can tailor coaching sessions to your exact needs to give you the confidence to communicate like a pro.


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How filler words are barriers to effective communication

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