Um, How to Eliminate your Filler Words

This is a guest post from Kwesi Millington.

Kwesi is a public speaking, storytelling & confidence coach, teaching you to speak, share, serve and live with greater confidence. Check out his website at and do watch his periscopes. He shares some very practical tips on speaking and story.


When you speak, are your phrases littered with “um’s” and “ah’s”? Do filler words fill your speeches?

When I first started speaking, I HATED silence. I used to do anything to fill those silences. And when I didn’t know what to say next, I filled them with the non-word no-no’s that most people often use in conversation. The “Um’s”, “Ah’s”, “Likes” and “You knows”. It’s not that the audience did not understand my speeches when I used these words, but I appeared nervous, unprepared, and less professional.

I devoted myself to working on my delivery, and once I started to eliminate these filler words, I started to be told that my messages were more powerful, and that I was a pretty good speaker!

The thing is, the messages did not change to cause improvements; I literally TOOK AWAY words to make my speeches better, instead of adding them.

Let’s look at 5 strategies you can use starting now to become a, um, better speaker. These are easy to apply steps that will improve your communication and make you appear more confident. It’s as easy as one word: PAUSE.

P – Practice

Rehearse Your Speech. I have heard people say they can “wing it” or that they sound staged when they prepare beforehand. If that is you, fine, but from experience, complete practice leads to calm performances. People add fillers to make up for spaces in a speech that they are not prepared for. When you practice your speech, you get to know your material inside and out. This way, if you forget a part, you can pause and let it come back to you (because you have practised), or simply move on because lets face it, YOU are the only one who knows what you forgot anyways. How do you practice? See my article on the 5Ps of Perfect Practice for more.

A – Answer

When you ask your audience a rhetorical question to your audience (ie: Have you ever had a time when…?), take a moment to quickly answer the question in YOUR mind before continuing to speak. This does 2 things: firstly, it allows the audience to absorb your question, showing that you respect them and actually want them to think about it. Secondly, it forces you to pause, in a spot that you may have otherwise used fillers. The pause makes you look more polished and professional, and then you can continue speaking at your next sentence/thought.

U – Use Everyday as Practice

I once read of a question asked of high school students. They were asked to describe a situation in 2 ways: firstly, how they would tell a police officer the situation, and secondly how they would tell their friends. In the first instance, the verbiage was very proper, and in the second it was casual with fillers and broken English. Though I do not always believe in the following statement, I do believe it applies here: The Way You do ANYTHING, is the Way You do EVERYTHING. So from now on, get in the habit of NEVER using filler words, even when talking to your family and friends. Just like an athlete spends more time practising than in the game, most of your conversations are with people you know, and a very small percentage of your life’s speaking is on a stage, no matter how much you speak. So watch for filler words like um, ah, and like whenever you speak to ANYONE. Reduce then eliminate them in your daily life, and you will see that transfer to the stage.

S – Stop

When you speak, think of how you write. You add commas, semi-colons and periods in your writing. When you speak, deliberately pause where you would at these punctuation points. Many speakers are so focused on their next thought, they forget to let the last one sink in. Most people are visual learners, which means they form pictures in relation to what you say. Give them time to make those pictures, and to re-live your stories with you, by pausing at your punctuation points.

E – Enjoy Yourself

Finally, enjoy the process of speaking. You’ve practised, you know your material, and you have a message to share. Once you forget about being perfect and remembering everything that you want to say, you can enjoy your time on stage, SLOW down, and savour the moment. Don’t worry about the time or think about getting to your next point. Enjoy the NOW, and just deliver your speech one thought at a time!

At the end of the day, as Speaker Craig Valentine says, don’t look for perfection, look for connection!

What to do when you present in a boring, repetitive monotone – follow TED speaker Robert’s example

This is a TED Talk by Robert Ballard, deep-sea explorer.

If you can, watch it without listening to the words, just to the pitch of his voice, especially about half way through the talk, at about 7.30.

The majority of his speech is incredibly monotonous.

He gives the impression that he is ashamed of what he is saying, that his audience will find it boring and that it needs to be hurried, get it out of the way as soon as it can be done.

There were times when I thought I would stop watching.

It was that bad!

I didn’t stop watching.


Because …

he compensated with some fabulous, very successful strategies that had his audience engaged despite the monotony.

What were these strategies and can we use them ourselves?

There were six that I noted, and all of them are powerful – they needed to be!!

1. The message is simple and strong

He has a very simple, well articulated message. Why are we spending so much time and money on space exploration and so little on exploring our oceans? It is repeated. The whole presentation supports it. And the fact that it is regularly stated as a question keeps it hooked into his audience’s minds and hearts.

2. He uses the unexpected

Several of his statements stand out for me but there are others. The first that aroused my attention was the one about how everything he learned at school in his field was wrong. The second was about the map. Normally when we see a blank space on a map we assume it is just an area of similar topography. A space like that on a map of the sea is blank because it is not mapped. Life under the sea exists in ways no life should. Water is upside down. Volcanoes work in ways volcanoes shouldn’t. He sets his audience up and hits them regularly with the unexpected and each point made that way hits strongly.

3. He uses images.

There are 57 image slides in this presentation with no words. There is no conflict in his audience’s minds between spoken and written words. The images reinforce what he is saying and his audience is more likely to remember a point made and supported by an image than one that is only made verbally. I can still see in my mind’s eye the little girl with her mouth open in amazement.

4. Humour

He’s not exactly a humorous speaker, nor a comedian, but he uses subtle humour, and again often the unexpected. There is self effacing humour, and his use of the name Easter Bunny, the statement “I would not let an adult drive a robot. He doesn’t have the gaming experience.” just three examples. And the audience laughs. But they laugh and they are acknowledging the humour but they are also being drawn to the point he is making at the time. The humour simply highlights it.

5. Clever use of Pause

Robert uses pause to highlight a particular point and his uses it powerfully, interspersing it between questions and single words.

He also uses pause as an antidote to a long session of fast-paced narrative. And that is powerful too.

6. Repetition

He repeated the main message. He repeated his main points. He repeated his humorous “Easter Bunny” statement. And it wasn’t saying the same thing over again. It was calling back to it, later in the speech. It’s a powerful technique, puts the segment just completed, monotonous though it may be, into perspective and creates support for the point he is making, or the idea he has introduced.

7. Passion

This man believes in what he is doing.

He is excited by it.

He is passionate about the possibilities it offers and about creating excitement in his audience and in the world, about his project.

And it shows, when he allows it, in his use of pause, in his enthusiasm, and in his energy.

These are not rhetorical devices he just inserted into his speech. They are the result of his enthusiasm and dedication and excitement.

He left the best for last when he talked about being able to ignite that same enthusiasm and excitement in middle-schoolers, when he talked about “creating the classroom of the future” and how you “win or lose a scientist by 8th grade”.

This is what we want.  This is a young lady not watching a football game, not watching a basketball game.  She's watching exploration thousands of miles away and it's just dawning on her what she is seeing.  And when you get a jaw dropping, you can inform, you can put so much information into that mind ...

This is what we want. This is a young lady not watching a football game, not watching a basketball game. She’s watching exploration thousands of miles away and it’s just dawning on her what she is seeing. And when you get a jaw dropping, you can inform, you can put so much information into that mind …

And he had a standing ovation.

Monotonous, maybe, boring no!

What are your “UMS” doing for you?

Once upon a time, in the dark dark past …

– no it wasn’t dark as in scary or bad – I had a fabulous time. I learned and enjoyed and created and learned and enjoyed. I mean dark as in dim in the memory and maybe even “Dark Ages”

… I was a member of a speaking club called Toastmistress.

International, liberating, polishing, encouraging, teaching … and much much more, was Toastmistress.

As members of the organisation, we were discouraged, severely, from using “ums” – or any other filler – for that matter. There was often a “Grunts Mistress” (don’t you dare snicker!!) whose sole job was to count the ums (or grunts) and we were fined for them. It was a fabulous exercise in that it taught me to speak fluently – without fillers. It was a terrible exercise in that it made me hyper-aware of every um any speaker ever uses.

umSo now that um has become a trendy part of so much of our speaking, both on-stage and off-, it is making me really think about its place in speaking. I still think we need to learn to speak fluently without fillers, and that the skill is a powerful contribution to our success as speakers. I also think that it can be a hindrance if the content of a speech is in any way not engaging and if it is repeated way too much.

(And if another sports person begins their answer to an interview question with “Look …”, I will …. do something serious.)

I also still think we need to be aware of just how we are using our ums.

Yes, many of us use them when we are thinking. It signals that we are thinking.

Many of us use them to begin a new point or section of the speech. It signals a change or something new, a new thought.

And now I have just become aware of another use.

It happened to be Brene Brown who made me aware of it. I love her speaking – the content, as well as the authentic delivery style she has. Part of the self-effacement of that style is the use of um following something humorous. So I get the impression that what the um is signalling is “I have just said something that you might think is funny. I’ll wait in case you want to laugh.”

And since noticing this phenomenon in that TED talk, I have seen it several times since – used by comedians as well.

My internal response is to think that yes, it would be so much better if you had just paused.

Pauses are powerful.

… or just used a face/body gesture

…. or a foregrounding tool of some sort.

But the um did the job, in a haphazard kind of way.

Just as we need to be constantly using bits of our brains to watch ourselves as we speak, so we need to be aware of how we are using ums. Run your internal camera or use a piece of video machinery. If you are happy to choose an um to signal that you are thinking, or that you are introducing a new topic, or that you are allowing time for humour to sink in, then make that choice.

But make sure it suits your style, and the image you want to present, and doesn’t detract from your engagement and message.

And make sure you have considered the alternatives that just might be so much more suitable and powerful. I don’t think it’s just my “Dark Ages” training that makes me vote for the latter if it can be achieved at all.

What do you think?

Does the trend to “authenticity”, “rawsomeness” and conversational speaking justify the proliferation of ums?

And I’m sure I’m a latecomer to noticing the use for humour. When did you first notice it?


© Bronwyn Ritchie
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Quick public speaking tip – Use variety to keep attention

You can avoid boring your audience by varying the pitch and the volume and pace of your words. Use pause for drama.

Speak quickly to communicate your energy and enthusiasm, and then use a slower rate for emphasis.

You can also deliberately vary the structure of your sentences. A single word can have huge impact used on its own, particularly if it comes after a wordier segment.

All of these are keeping your audience hooked.

Public Speaking Success Tip – fillers

Unless your speech if absolutely fascinating, any “pause fillers” you add repetitiously, like um, or y’know, or OK will start to stand out.

They will capture the audience above your speech.

Start by listening to others – sports commentators, interviewees on television, anyone speaking publicly.

Listen for their fillers then you will learn to listen for your own.