the shape of leadership

Breaking Bad … Um … Verbal Habits

Eliminate unnecessary filler language

Joy Qualls on July 18, 2017

Um … Ah … OK.”

Most people use unnecessary language to fill pauses in speech. In the study of communication, we call these filler words. They are literally words we use to occupy space that contribute little or nothing to the exchange or the message.

The frequent use of filler words or other meaningless language can detract from the message and the credibility of the speaker. As communicators of the gospel, how can we keep our delivery uncluttered and on point so that people will hear the Word, not our filler words?

It is important to recognize what filler words are and why we use them. A filler word is any word (such as “um”) that we use to fill gaps in our communication. These gaps appear for several reasons: We are searching for the right words, we are collecting our thoughts, we are trying to speak without offending others, or we just do not know what to say or how to say it.

In short, we use filler words because we are uncomfortable; specifically, we are uncomfortable with silence. In a conversation, someone may interject when there is silence, and we may not want to create that opening. People often see silence as uncomfortable or problematic, so we avoid silent spaces in our speech.

However, filler words and other unnecessary language affect what Aristotle called ethos, or source credibility. As speakers and communicators, our credibility is highly valuable and, if challenged, can lessen our impact on those God calls us to lead, teach or otherwise engage in conversation. Here are some tips on how to limit and ultimately eliminate filler words from communication.

Be Aware of Personal Fillers

First, pay attention to the filler words you use and how often you repeat them. For some, it is the common “um.” Others just repeat words or phrases frequently during a single communication situation. In the interest of full disclosure, my common filler words are “OK” and, “Does that make sense?”

To understand when and how often you use filler words, record your speech and watch it as a self-critique. This is especially helpful if you are a public communicator. Another tactic is asking a trusted person to count the number of times you use common filler words, either in conversation or during a public speaking engagement.

Becoming aware of the specific words you use and how you use them can help you eliminate them from your speech. At first, you may be self-conscious about these words and phrases, but the emotional trigger can create awareness that assists in eliminating them from your patterns of speech.

Remember to Breathe

Breathing is one of the most underused tools in the communicator’s toolbox. Not only does it sustain stamina and provide oxygen to the brain for clarity of thought, but it also helps fill space into which we might otherwise insert a filler word.

We need oxygen not just to live, but also to thrive. Take a deep, cleansing breath before you begin speaking. And when you’re tempted to insert a filler word, consider it a reminder to take another breath.

Rather than avoiding silence, learn to maximize its impact.

The benefits of good breathing will prove exponentially beneficial to the quality of your voice, the strength of your posture, and the clarity of your words.

Breathe from your diaphragm. When using good breathing practices, your belly does not puff out, nor does your chest rise. Rather, your belly contracts and your lungs expand to fill with oxygen for longer sustainability and better benefit to your speech.

If you are unsure how to breathe well, take time to work with a vocalist or vocal coach. Breathing techniques will improve your overall health and assist in eliminating fillers from your speech.

Embrace the Sound of Silence

In the West, people are often uncomfortable with silence. When a silent moment arises, we want to fill the space. However, silence is not something we must avoid; in fact, it can be a powerful communication technique.

Dramatic pauses and other silent moments allow the listener an opportunity to catch up mentally and emotionally with the things you are saying and the arguments you are making. Silence can add emphasis to the message.

Viewing silence as a tool to assist communication, instead of a hindrance you must avoid, is a change in mindset that will make you a more effective and credible speaker.

Rather than avoiding silence, learn to maximize its impact. Silence helps the communicator think clearly about word choices and work through logic and reasoning in formulating arguments.

An aversion to silence undermines communication. Write in places for silence in your speaking outline or manuscript. Give yourself cues in the margins about where to breathe, where to use silence for effect, or where to pause so your mind can catch up with your tongue.


Awareness, breathing and silence are all tools that can help you recognize and manage your speech patterns. However, eliminating fillers requires practice.

If you spend all your preparation time studying, then you open yourself up to the filler while speaking. While you don’t want your communication to sound performed, it is helpful to rehearse your remarks.

I find that practicing in front of a mirror or recording practice times helps me recognize filler words and phrases. I note them in my speaking outline so I can avoid them in the moment. It may be uncomfortable or awkward, but it’s better to feel that way during a private practice time rather than while speaking in front of an audience or involved in a conversation.

Awareness and avoidance of filler words are beneficial for the novice and the seasoned communicator alike. As we gain experience and confidence, we can also become complacent and fall into repetitive patterns. It’s important to recognize this and revisit the issue of filler speech at all stages of work as communicators.

The message is only as effective as the communicator who takes the time to evaluate and put in the extra effort to develop delivery.

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