I = Interferences (um, you know, like) are the “I” in d.e.l.I.v.e.r.y

This article is part 5 of a series using the acronym D.E.L.I.V.E.R.Y. and next will be V = Vocals. 

Ummm, ah, and, you know, like, so, and, errr, etc ……. known officially as Vocal Interferences or Filler Language is the #1presentation verbal mistake.  It is possible to eliminate these with concentrated effort, and it will go a long way towards professional perception if you reduce these.

Why are fillers a problem?

  • Creates a poor impression. They can affect your credibility and influence! Excessive fillers reduce an educated — professional — confident — mature – expert    Instead, you can appear unintelligent, unprepared, uninformed, nervous and amateurish.  If you want to attract a customer, close a deal, influence or gain approval, highlight expertise, or any other important communication goal, excessive filler language may detract.
  • Fillers are nonsense words. These words have no added value and water down significant content.
  • It’s harder to listen when fillers become excessive. As an adult instructor of public speaking skills, I count the number of fillers and other speaking errors when I start noticing them occurring excessively.  I recently listened to an hour long professional presentation containing over 200 uhms, which made the presentation poor.

Why do they occur? There are the possible reasons:

  • It surfaces due to being uncomfortable. Everyone has a few when speaking.
  • You do it every day already and there are more during speaking.  It also takes an effort to remove it, so we are all somewhat lazy about speaking with perfection.
  • It’s common. Everyone else does it and we often pick up speaking like the people we are around.
  • Comfort with silence. Natural pauses and silence are needed in a presentation, but speakers must get used to them and not speak non-stop.
  • How many is too many? A handful of uhm/and-ah/ah’s are OK and normal due to nervousness.  However, most people have occurrences in the high teens and higher… per minute!  A goal is to have less than 5 in an entire speech.
  • Can you reduce or remove fillers? YESSS!!!! The how is the purpose of this article.  However, elimination is not going to occur by accident.  It will require an effort to first reduce then work towards elimination.  I’m going to outline the ways!
    • Have someone count your fillers. Tracking improves problem awareness and measures your progress.
    • Ask someone to provide cues. When I first started working on filler reduction, I had a person in the room raise their hand when I said a filler.  The awareness helped me reduce them.  You can ask someone to help you and ‘cue’ you when you use a filler, both every day and during speeches. One mom told me she says “one, two, three” and this increases awareness.  On the humorous side, I recommend you like this person in case their alerting you becomes annoying!
    • Repeat or “Mirror” it back. Have someone reflect back the over-repeated filler word to the speaker.  I do this with students or those who ask me to help.  If during general conversation they say “um,” I would also say “um” back in ‘mirroring’ back.

How do you reduce fillers?

  1. You must fix it every day! When someone gets up to speak, it’s too late to fix language errors!  The language you use on speech day I refer to as “automatic” language. The speaker no longer thinks about wording as they are instead monitoring their nervousness, content goals, and their audience interaction. At this point, a couple fillers might slip in due to nervousness, but if fillers are a part of everyday language, the slips are in addition to the speaker’s regular usage. A good speaker must correct their everyday language every single day if fillers are to be reduced on speech day.
  2. Improvement takes time and is NOT overnight:
    • Look for reduction. It’s more realistic to seek reduction, not  If you have a lot of filler language, immediate 100% removal is unrealistic.  First start by identifying a baseline.  Start by measuring your early speeches and identify how many fillers you say per minute. This is your baseline.
    • Set a realistic, measurable and achievable goal. Depending on how many fillers you are using, set a goal to cut 1/3, then ½ of that. Record subsequent speeches and celebrate successes, including measuring during your everyday filler use.  A realistic time-frame for small improvements might be over 3-6-months onto a year reaching larger reduction goals.
    • Give it time. Studies say a habit won’t change without at least 21 days if concentrated effort is needed to get better.  Compare changing the habit to dieting.  Instantaneous results don’t occur because you don’t eat one day.  It takes effort over time towards small reduction goals to get rid of total excess weight.
  3. Increased awareness. The most important first step is to become aware you are saying fillers. You must start by hearing yourself use these filler words. People who have a lot of fillers do not notice the amount they use and underestimate by 1/3 to 2/3 the amount they actually use.  Here are ways to increase your awareness:
    • Listen to others use fillers and start counting them.  Once you begin hearing others use it, you will notice how annoying and uninteresting it is. This will fuel your motivation to remove it from your speaking.
    • Tape and video-record yourself. Listen once for the purpose of hearing only how many fillers you are using. I regularly listen to my recordings even after three decades professionally speaking to keep my awareness high.
    • You could use notes, such as “no fillers” or “stop saying UM” in your wallet, desk, post-it, calendar, task list, etc., which helps constantly remind about this issue.
  4. Invite help:
    • Access professional training, and there’s plenty of it around.
    • Introductory Public Speaking classes. Public speaking skills are acquired doing public speaking practice!  A community college can be a great place to enroll in a reasonably priced no-credit class, yet still do all the work so you improve.
    • Join Toastmasters. Not only will you practice improving speaking, Toastmasters usually actively encourages filler awareness. Some Toastmasters clubs work at awareness by having a grammarian count fillers, ring a bell for every filler spoken, or a charge a small fee to help increase awareness. Everyone can find a Toastmasters club at Toastmasters.com.
    • Others offer highly acclaimed training, such as Dale Carnegie. Should the instructor not focus on filler language reduction, you can do this for yourself via recording.

Anyone can become a good speaker, but it’s not by accident. Reducing filler language is possible but it takes active effort!  Speakers who eliminate fillers have made strides towards being perceived as an outstanding speaker.


This article is part 5 of a series using the acronym D.E.L.I.V.E.R.Y. and next will be V = Vocals.  I look forward to hearing how this content helped you. Feel free to reach out to me with your ideas or accessing my public speaking training.