Filler Words and Verbal Tics

By Marsha Petrie Sue, MBA

The more filler words you use, the more you diminish yourself as a polished professional. You may be extremely capable and confident in what you say, but when too many filler words are used, the attention is deflected away from the message and instead becomes focused on you as the messenger. The audience may think you are unsure of yourself and doubt you and your message. This erodes your professional presence.


  1. Become cognizant of your speech pattern. Record your voice during normal conversations. Use your voice record application on your smart phone and record 2 – 3 conversations you make. Be aware of State law as in some states it is illegal to record both sides.
  2. filler_wordsRecord your voice during meetings and presentations. The change in circumstance, audience, topic, and more can influence the use of vocal interferences.
  3. Listen to the recordings and count the times you use vocal interferences. Keep track by the individual word: um, a, so, like, basically, etc. You will begin to check yourself. Remember, you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.
  4. Filler words are ingrained communication habits. Allow yourself to hear them in your communication and give yourself permission to pause. Two to three seconds allows the listener to absorb your message, and gives you time to think.  In addition, it will help you slow down.
  5. Enlist a colleague or friend to let you know when you are using fillers. Create a signal, such as a finger snap, table tap, wink, etc.
  6. Be as prepared as possible in meetings and presentations. Evaluate the potential questions and comments that may be asked. Establish a prepared answer to questions you are not comfortable answering. This will help reduce verbal stumbling.
  7. Focus on the structure of your communication. Have your thoughts organized.
  8. It becomes much more awkward to say “Um” when making full, engaging eye contact. In your next meeting, experiment with turning your torso and eye gaze toward each person in the room, giving your attention inclusively. If you’re on a conference call, don’t pace or stare out the window blankly, but turn your attention to your notes or script. Both in-person and on the phone, your “Um’s” will lessen.
  9. Pre-plan Your Transitions. One of the functions of “Um” is to tell your audience that you’re not done talking yet and need to gather your thoughts. As an alternative, have some ready transitions use in any presentation or meeting, such as “Let’s move on to…”, “Another important consideration is…” or even “Let’s transition to talking about…” Practicing these go-to transitions will begin to feel natural and will lessen your dependence on saying, “Um.”

In a Mind Floss article Arika Okrent states: “So what is this important language function? Why do people say um? Not because they are nervous. Scholarly studies of the word reveal that the use of um does not correlate with anxiousness or any personality traits. Rather, um is used to signal an upcoming pause—usually uh for a short pause and um for a longer pause. The pause may be needed in order to find the right word, remember something temporarily forgotten, or repair a mistake. Um holds the floor for us while we do our mental work. It buys some time for thinking.”

Thanks for reading!

Marsha Petrie Sue, MBA

or for information on having Marsha speak at your event please contact Marcia Snow at

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