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November 20, 2013 5:30 PM   Subscribe

How do I stop using filler words?

When I'm nervous I use a lot of filler words! What are some tips for stopping?
posted by dinosaurprincess to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
posted by jsturgill at 5:34 PM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Recognize when you're likely to be doing it and consciously and deliberately stop yourself from doing it, as often as possible. A silent pause is better than the filler word, and eventually, it'll improve. Another trick that seems to help is reading aloud. (It tends to improve comprehension, too, but that's beside the point.)
posted by stormyteal at 5:38 PM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, knowing what you're going to say before you start talking can make a huge difference.
posted by stormyteal at 5:41 PM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I do, too. I say "like" a lot more than I should. Always have.

I can tell you that being teased doesn't help.

One thing that does help is when I find myself saying "like" I take a breath instead. It does kind of stutter a sentence, though, esp. if you don't have a word that comes after.
posted by sm1tten at 5:43 PM on November 20, 2013

Take your time to speak. Compose your thoughts before you open your mouth. Speak slowly and deliberately. Be willing to tolerate a few seconds of silence if you need them to fish for the right word or phrase.
posted by BrashTech at 5:44 PM on November 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

I don't know about being teased not helping. In junior high school a friend's younger sister mocked my overuse of "like" and I pretty much excised it as a filler from that point.

In law school we were always told that after you had to read a couple of transcripts where you were using filler words you would cut it right out.

I really think it is one of those things where being aware that you use filler words and deciding not to use them is pretty much all it takes.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 5:51 PM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Toastmasters! There's a designated person in Toastmasters who counts filler words and reports back on that. It's really great practice.
posted by xingcat at 5:51 PM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I grew up in the 90s, origin of kids using "like" every other word. I had some classmates who broke themselves of it by taking turns speaking and the other person yelling "Stop!" every time they heard a like. It gets you more aware of when you start using filler words and you can train yourself to not use them.

Public speaking lessons helped me stop using fillers. We did this in high school and the teacher would ring a bell anytime we made any kind of verbal tic. One thing that helped was finally realizing that having a little bit of dead air was ok, and a pause with silence was better than a pause with a filler.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:52 PM on November 20, 2013

I was on the debate team in high school. Filler words (also filler sounds and filler phrases. I had a professor who used "and such like that" at least a dozen times an hour) are a habit, and like many habits, difficult to break. Here are some tips that debate teams use:
  • Watch videos of yourself speaking - make a list of all the fillers you actually use.
  • Have someone else police your speaking, using a bell or annoying vocalization every time you use a filler word
  • Keep track of the filler words that other people use (discreetly)
  • Think about what you want to emphasize before you speak. Pause there.
  • Try to only speak about things you know and are comfortable with. Alternately, spend much more time speaking about things you have only passing knowledge of.
  • Give a greater number of formal speeches, competitive or otherwise.
  • Focus on one filler at a time, start with like and then move to um.
  • Focus on one speech act at a time. Remove fillers from classroom questions, or conversations with your boss, before removing them all your speech.
  • Use body language. Not so much that it becomes a filler, but allow your hands to provide some emphasis to your words. Things I've learned outside of the debate tournaments:
    • Work on relaxing more in your speech. Oddly enough, fillers seem to come up more when we're anxious or worried about a particular speech act. So, maybe they creep in when you're talking to your boss, or the people who report to you. If you can get to the bottom of why it's happening, you can treat the cause.
    • Suggestions to join Toastmasters will probably follow shortly. I have no personal experience with them.

posted by bilabial at 5:53 PM on November 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Record yourself! I have a cheap mic and when you listen to yourself, you go, "errghh," but I have done fake commercials and stuff from scripts and then it's so easy to stay on track. Make a podcast that you will never publish. Have a friend or relative help you out with fake interviews. When I was a kid, all we did was make up fake radio shows using a cassette recorder and then laugh at ourselves.

Also, in face to face situations: take a breath. Practice in your head for a second, and say, "well Bob, it's funny you should mention that, because I just got done smooshing the bangly cock into my sidewalk when the street sweeper came roaring by, you wouldn't believe the mess it made!"

If someone asks why you are sighing (taking your breath), tell them you were just thinking about the latest situation in X news item.

You can also divert: "I'm not someone who thinks on my feet. What do you think about the fate of thousands of giblets being thrown away on Turkey Day?"

I can also attest to the fact that people making fun of me for having a New England accent pretty much drove it out of me unless I start reminiscing and then it comes back and I'll be saying cellar and bahn and fohk. So record yourself and listen back, then do it again and again. Think of it as your own King's Speech project.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:57 PM on November 20, 2013

Give yourself license to pause momentarily and say nothing. Silence is fine for the duration of the word "like", or even 1.5 of them.
posted by alms at 6:17 PM on November 20, 2013

Have someone else police your speaking, using a bell or annoying vocalization every time you use a filler word
This. I find it really painful in person, but for those who can stand it at all, it really is the fastest thing. Classical conditioning, basically.

And also it really does teach you to absolutely hate clickers/bells/whatever it is that gets used.

Lots of Toastmasters clubs do this. But you should ask before showing up to a particular club - lots don't like to do it because it upsets folks. That link is to additional tips on avoiding/cutting out filler words.
posted by SMPA at 6:21 PM on November 20, 2013

Embrace silence. It's normal to feel awkward when searching for a word but the best way to stop using filler words is to work to simply shut your mouth until you know what you want to come out of it. The pauses will seem longer to you than they will to others.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:30 PM on November 20, 2013

I do this, and I just practice talking more smoothly by talking to myself and making a mental note of my filler words so I can cut down, or at least diversify a little. People will tweak to your saying 'like' every few words, but if you alternate it in with some 'ummm's and things like that, it's not as noticeable to others.

I hope it's OK to bring this up, but I just want to caution you not to be too strident about eliminating all of your fillers. It is normal to use some filler words. They're really an important social lubricant. My boyfriend never uses them, and it can give him a very strange affect. I've been with this guy forever, I love and trust him, and I am still very often creeped out by his strange pauses and his failure to interject little social acknowledgments into conversation. I think it's a big reason people find him intimidating sometimes, because his failure to use little ums and ahhs can make it seem as though he's being dismissive or judgmental, and it's hard to tell when he's done talking, or even if he's involved in a discussion at all.
posted by ernielundquist at 6:37 PM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Speak more slowly in general so that it's less jarring when you have to pause a moment to find the right words. This may not work as well if your normal cadence is already too slow for your listeners (e.g., a Texan in New York) but most people tolerate a wide enough range of cadences that you'll probably get away with it.

For longer pauses, explicitly acknowledge them so that people understand you're not done. Most people are willing to wait several seconds if you say, "Let me think of a good way to phrase this."
posted by d. z. wang at 7:01 PM on November 20, 2013

stormyteal: Recognize when you're likely to be doing it and consciously and deliberately stop yourself from doing it, as often as possible. A silent pause is better than the filler word, and eventually, it'll improve. Another trick that seems to help is reading aloud. (It tends to improve comprehension, too, but that's beside the point.)

If you listen to Pres. Obama... uh, speak, you'll... notice, that he does this - - - a lot. And yet, it doesn't come off... as stilted.

OK, to me his "draw it out and speak slowly" tricks are a bit obvious, but it's something I watch for in presidents - they all have slightly different styles, but have clearly been groomed by pros to appeal to the USian (generic human) desire to hear things put simply, forcifully, and slowly (to allow time for the ideas to sink in).

You... can do this... too.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:38 PM on November 20, 2013

Just don't.... soundlike... Captain Kirk... when you....................speak.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:03 PM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Speaking well is like good driving: look ahead, and don't do things in a rush. It is regrettable that modern conversation frequently seems to be a battle to avoid being interrupted or talked over. These things do not help people who want to express themselves clearly, and without rushing or stumbling. Filler words are often a response to feeling pressured by other people hogging the conversation and leaping into the slightest pause, etc.

The first bit of advice I have is to not be one of these people. Practice fully formulating the essence of what you want to say before you start to say it. I don't mean the exact words, just the meat of your point. Secondly, when you start to speak try to do so in a clear, unhurried way, without gabbling, but not so slowly that you leave room for the interrupters to leap in. If they do so anyway, do not be afraid to say "excuse me, I hadn't finished my point." It can actually be quite satisfying to see the effect this has. Thirdly, if you still find yourself experiencing a mental lacuna during speaking, practice avoiding dumb-sounding fillers such as "like" and "y'know" and use longer phrases such as "what's the word I'm looking for?", "to put it another way", "which, I suppose, is similar to" and so on, as appropriate to the context. This will buy you time to think on your feet about what to say next while still maintaining relative articulacy. Fourthly, again, look ahead as you are speaking. Once you have decided what your next sentence will be, think about the subsequent one as you say it. This takes practice, but it comes. You can practice alone by picking some random subject and talking about it aloud. Record yourself and play it back, listening critically. Look at the places you stumble and see if you can see a pattern. Fifthly, breathe. Singers learn to breathe properly. So do actors. So should good speakers.

This is a subject close to my heart because I used to be incredibly nervous about speaking and conversation, tending to alternate between intimidated silence and gabbling. Having to do a few public presentations (and having listened to a few dreadful ones) made me work hard at being a better speaker. The points above were helpful to me, so hopefully they will be for you too.
posted by Decani at 12:23 AM on November 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's useful to recognize that filler words serve a purpose. It's like any other bad habit — you do this shit because you get something out of it, because it's functional in some ways, and changing the habit becomes much easier if you recognize that. So the question for you is, when you use fillers, what social or conversational function is it serving? And are there other things you could do that would serve the same function?

Here's some of the things that fillers do in language more generally. Maybe one of these will ring a bell with you.

1) Holding the floor: If you pause for too long, someone might take the opportunity to interrupt. Using filler words prevents that from happening. The most common ones to use for this are "um" and "uh," but actually any filler word will work here. (As long as you keep your mouth moving, it's clear that your turn hasn't ended.)

This isn't always a bad thing. Sometimes, especially if you're speaking off the cuff, you really do need a moment to think, and it really is useful to convey to everyone else "Hey, I'm not giving up on this sentence, I'm just hesitating." In fact, there are situations where pausing without a filler can be rude. Suppose someone asks you a question in a fast-paced conversation. If you don't respond right away, it might look like you're actually ignoring them or refusing to respond. Saying "uh" during the split-second it takes you to formulate an answer might be the polite thing to do, because it sends a signal that says "Yes, I acknowledge your question and I do intend to reply, just gimme a sec."

The problem is that if you overdo it, it can make you sound insecure. In most groups, you'll notice that the people who have really high status within the group don't have to fill their pauses as much as everyone else — because they're not as worried that anyone will interrupt them, and because social status gives them license to interrupt right back if anyone does. So if you fill your pauses in a situation where there's no actual risk of interruption, it looks like you aren't aware of your own status or aren't confident enough to take advantage of it: like you're irrationally afraid of being talked-over even though you have the full attention of your audience.

2) Hedging: Some of the things we call "filler words" are really ways of softening a message. This can include "sorta," "kinda," "well," "actually," "you know," "I guess," "I'm afraid," "I just wanted to say that..." and some instances of "like." These can convey uncertainty, tentativeness, or willingness to back down. They also can serve as a sort of implicit apology for making a dispreferred move — e.g. turning down an offer, saying "I don't know" to a question, refusing a request, etcetera.

Again, this isn't always a bad thing. Sometimes it's good to make it clear you're being tentative. And implicit apologies are often important. If someone invites you to a party, just saying "I'm busy" and leaving it at that sounds like a pretty harsh rejection. (In some contexts, it would imply "...and fuck you for even asking.") But if you hedge it up and say "Well, actually, I'm afraid I'm kinda busy" — okay, that's still a rejection, but it's now much less harsh, and it makes it clear that you care at least a little about the other person's feelings. The thing is, as with pause-filling, too much hedging makes you sound insecure. If you act tentative and apologetic every time you open your mouth, people will start to wonder what's wrong. It's important to save these for the situations where caution or apologies are really warranted.

3) Inviting solidarity: Some of the things we call "filler words" are ways of inviting people to agree with you or back you up on something. A lot of tag questions — "you know?" "right?" "yeah?" "know what I mean?" — fall into this category.

Like all the others, this is sometimes a good thing. After all, sometimes you genuinely want people to stop and consider whether they agree with you. Used in moderation, this sort of move invites the people you're talking to to feel more engaged and involved in the conversation. And unlike some of the other kinds of filler, this one isn't necessarily a weak or low-status move. Tag questions can also convey confidence and rhetorical strength: "Can I get an amen?" "You fellas all know what I'm talking about, am I right?" But overdoing it is still problematic — even with the strong and confident kind, which can make you sound pushy or aggressive if you take them too far.

4) Performing gender: This is kind of a meta-function. Women are expected to use more filler words, and a lot of women do live up to this expectation. This is a side effect of a bunch of other sexist stuff surrounding gender in conversation: all else equal, women are given lower status, are interrupted more often, are asked to be more accommodating (and so must apologize harder if they need to make a dispreferred move), and are expected to rely more on the approval and support of others. As a result of all that, using more fillers is a useful conversational strategy for women. It allows us to hold the floor and say what we need to say without being perceived as bitchy or arrogant.

But the women-use-more-fillers thing has also taken on a life of its own, and using filler has come to be perceived as a feminine quality in its own right. (There are specific fillers — e.g. "like" and "you know" — that people consciously consider feminine, and others that are unconsciously perceived that way.) So sometimes women will do it for its own sake, as a component of feminine self-expression. One example of this that I find especially striking is that butch women, in spaces where butchness isn't really valued or accepted, will sometimes start using more fillers than they otherwise would as a sort of linguistic disguise. You can't just instantly grow out your buzz cut or turn your boots into heels, but you can shift the way you talk....

Once again this is a good-news/bad-news thing. Acting feminine has advantages and disadvantages. If this is an issue in your life you're probably already aware of what the specific advantages and disadvantages are for you.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 8:04 AM on November 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I use the word "like" as a crutch, and have for about 25 years. My Dad would call my sisters and I on it. "Are you doing to the mall, or are you 'like' going to the mall?" I know it's a problem, especially as I approach 40, but nothing has made me want to change more than watching Justin Bieber say it over and over on The Tonight Show.
posted by getawaysticks at 8:50 AM on November 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

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