By Ian Hawkins
If your New Year’s Resolution is to improve your public speaking, you are probably one of the many people who struggles with filler words – the ‘um’s, ‘er’s and ‘you know’s that sap your credibility and confidence.
Do you struggle with filler words? Toastmasters International is a worldwide organisation that helps people improve their public speaking, and I’ve been a member for about eight years. Filler words are such a crucial part of speaking that many clubs have an actual role that covers this: the ‘er’ counter will report back at the end of each meeting with a total of the number of times an ‘er’ has been uttered. It’s also the subject of a chapter in the book I co-wrote, Insider Secrets of Public Speaking.
Stopping yourself from filling empty space with filler words is a challenge in which I have a personal interest: I could ‘er’ for England, and if you’ve ever seen me speak, you’ll know that it’s not something I’ve entirely conquered. The usual recommendation that I hear post-speech is that my feet seldom stay still when I’m on the stage. I may have (mostly) stopped saying ‘er’ with my mouth but the body speaks, and my feet never shut up.
Fixing the filler problem
If you want to fix a problem you have to understand it. What function does a filler word have?
I think it’s a lot of things, and for most it’s a signal that they don’t want the audience to lose interest in what is being said. People with fewer filler words in their speech come across as more credible – they expect to be listened to. People with too many filler words look like they are trying too hard, that they are nervous of the audience, or doubt themselves. Even in front of a sympathetic crowd, it’s not a good look.
Our club, EBS, has an innovative approach that reflects its diverse membership. I haven’t checked the stats, but if more than half the members spoke English as a second language, it wouldn’t surprise me. At the first meeting of 2019, I was in the Linguist role (sometimes called the Grammarian by other clubs), and decided that rather than bringing a word of the day that people had to incorporate, I’d try a word that people had to avoid: ‘er’.
EBS doesn’t usually have a counter of filler words, so I decided that on this day I’d do the honours. I didn’t feel that a raw number at the end of the meeting would be that helpful; on the other hand I didn’t want to ‘name and shame’ anyone. So how did I tackle this?
The EBS ‘er’ experiment
I used a combination of methods. Members with prepared speeches were, I thought, fair game, and should find their final count, given on an individual basis, useful.
We happened to have a lot of guests, and I therefore treated Table Topics as a whole, without singling out individuals who may be first-time visitors.
I did the same for evaluators, lumping them together (with one exception which bucked the trend as you’ll see shortly), singled out the President and Toastmaster for special attention, and largely ignored the other functionaries for no real reason other than that I wanted to do a fair comparison. With a range of roles at each meeting, it wouldn’t be meaningful to put an apple against an orange.
Finally, I wanted to see how people’s use of filler words changed over time through their speech. As speeches and time on stage were different lengths, I divided each ‘performance’ into quarters. This last move was, I think, the most important, because it told us something really interesting. It’s also the most open to bias by me, having to judge when someone is a quarter, half or three quarters of the way through a speech that may be a 60 second Table Topic, an evaluation in the middle, or a speech lasting 7 minutes+. I freely admit there was a little bit of going back on the data, and I almost certainly missed a few ‘er’s. But what has come out at the end, imperfect as it is, is still worth looking at.
If I’ve made it sound complicated (and I think I have) a look at the final table produced should reassure you that no great mathematical skill is required by me to create this, or for you to understand it.
By building this table in Keynote (the Mac equivalent of PowerPoint) I was able to quickly turn the numbers into a chart for the end of the meeting, and talk through the findings.
What do the numbers tell us?
First of all, reducing speeches to the number of filler words is not a good way of gauging how successful a speech is. In fact, it’s boring: rather than letting myself be carried along on a story, I was instead listening out for filler words. But that, of course, is the Linguist/Grammarian’s lot. In any case, apologies to the speakers! I was listening in the ‘wrong’ way, and therefore have to make doubly sure that my comments are useful.
Second lesson: our speakers who had English as a second language said far fewer filler words, with the exception of our Scottish President, whose introduction was ‘er’ free. If you’re wondering why our president’s introductions come with an air of gravitas, the data speaks volumes.
The most ‘er’s came from a member who (without running an IQ test) comes across as one of the smarter members of the club; does this suggest that the more self-aware you are, the more likely you are to ‘um’ and ‘er’? I’d certainly raise your awareness to the possibility that the more you think about not using filler words, the more you may find yourself doing so.
Finally, and most importantly, the use of filler words changed over time. While one evaluator’s ‘er’-count increased slightly in the third quarter, this was bucking a larger, general trend downwards as time passed. I think it is fair to conclude that – special circumstances aside – the function of the filler word may no longer be required when a speaker has been onstage for a short time. Personal story: I was evaluating a speaker in New York, whose aim was to use fewer filler words. My heart sank a bit as she began to speak, as every pause seemed to come with an ‘er’. But then something magical happened a few minutes in: a pause. I could see in her eyes that she wanted to put in an ‘er’, and she didn’t. ‘If you want to know how to stop yourself from saying “um” and “er”,’ I said in my evaluation afterwards, ‘remember that moment, because you saw it happen, and if you can do it once you can do it again.’
The importance of being ‘er’nest
One thing I wouldn’t advocate is getting rid of ‘er’ entirely. A speech isn’t about the script, it’s about the relationship you build with an audience. Sometimes you have to hedge your bets, tell people you’re proceeding with caution, or that you are unsure of the facts. On the page, you have to write, ‘it seems that…’ or ‘the data suggests…’. When you’re speaking, a well-placed ‘er’ tells the audience that they need to take your words with a pinch of salt. An ‘er’ can convey emotion. An ‘er’ can get an audience on your side. Sometimes, a bit of vulnerability is precisely what you want to convey.
As I delivered these figures immediately at the end of the meeting, I didn’t have time to quickly calculate the totals of each column. Here’s the graph that I generated from these numbers:
And as you can see, the use of filler words does indeed decrease over time.
So how can you turn these numbers into action?
If you ‘um’ and ‘er’ too much, approach your speech as you would if you were speaking a foreign language: think about each word. If any bilingual Toastmasters would like to get in touch and let me know if they find the number of filler words changes depending on the language they’re speaking in, I’d love to know if this holds true or that the speakers at this particular meeting happened to get lucky. I’m fairly sure that this happened at the ‘Polish your Polish’ meeting I went to – though you be the judge of how reliable my memory might be, and how best I can judge a filler word in a language I don’t speak. More interestingly, I once ran a workshop on speaking and one Russian participant was having difficulties finding the right word. ‘Try speaking in Russian,’ I said, and the participant found the exercise even more difficult. I think the lesson here is that being able to speak fluidly to others means you have an expectation that you are also being understood.
Another approach is to have authority. Many of us want to get rid of the filler words to give ourselves authority, but it may be the other way round: when we feel confident, we have less need for filler words.
More killer, less filler
A lot of filler words at the beginning of a speech – particularly Table Topics – suggests there’s a certain amount of warming up a speaker has to do before they’re confident. If this is you, make sure you warm up before you go on stage (my silent warm-up is to look at objects around the room and name them in my head: ‘table, chair, light’. When I’ve done a few, I describe them in much more detail: ‘a 1950s style Danish-looking angle poise lamp, switched off.’ It takes about a minute, and I hit the ground running). Impromptu speaking usually means you can’t warm up, but if you know you’re first on, you can take some time out to prep first.
If you’re given the role of counting the ‘er’s, do consider adding the dimension of time to your counting, and if you’re more technically minded than me (which isn’t difficult), you might be able to come up with a more accurate way of noting where they occur. If you get more data, or higher quality data, sharing is caring, particularly with me.
I think the most important thing to take away from this is that if your aim is to ‘um’ and ‘er’ less, there are reasons to be optimistic: you’re probably already achieving this at some point in your speech. Even the speaker who skewed the data with more ‘er’s than anyone else saw a reduction in numbers between the first quarter and the last. The solution to the problem is something you may already be doing – so watch yourself back and stop beating yourself up over each ‘er’; start finding those moments when you could’ve used a filer word and didn’t. If you can’t find an instance, you haven’t failed (that would be too easy, you’re not off the hook yet) – get back onstage and practice some more until the magic happens.
Have you beaten the urge to ‘um’? Do you ‘er’ when you’d rather be silent? Share your experiences in the comments below!