Have you ever, you know, wondered why, um, we use, like, filler words?

If that sentence was hard to read, imagine trying to listen to it.

Filler words – like, um, ah, er, ahem, you know – are the verbal crutches we use when we’re gathering our thoughts, choosing our words, or bridging a silence. Just about all of us use them sometimes, and some of us use them a lot. While the occasional filler word will undoubtedly slip out from time to time, overusing them works against us. They’re distracting to the people listening to us. They also create the impression that we’re unsure of what we’re saying or nervous about speaking up.

“Like” my filler word?

I once saw a renowned author give a wonderfully articulate formal presentation. She seemed confident and at ease as she spoke with authority about her work. During the question and answer session, though, she seemed much less sure of herself. I realized halfway through the Q & A why – she was using “like” as a filler word in just about every sentence. Her presentation (which was scripted) didn’t have any fillers. I spent the rest of the Q & A fixated on her “likes” instead of listening to her ideas – probably not what she hoped her audience would take away from her presentation.

How to avoid filler words

While we might not abuse filler words as much as in this example, we can all benefit from trying to eliminate them while we’re talking. When we do, our speech will reflect the strong, confident, capable professionals we are – and our listeners won’t get distracted by our “likes.”

Try these simple strategies to reduce your use of filler words:

Get comfortable with silence.

Sometimes we rely on unnecessary words or sounds to fill the silence as we’re talking. We all need to gather our thoughts, choose our next words, or just breathe. Sometimes, though, we think the silence will be too much, so we rush to fill it with an “um” or a “you know.” Pushing ourselves to get used to those brief moments of silence in our speech is the first step in letting go of the need to fill them.

Listen for your personal fillers.

For one week, spend part of every day listening for your filler words. You’ll quickly learn what your go-to fillers are. You might also discover that you’re more prone to use them when you’re in certain kinds of situations or speaking with specific people. Knowing your habits and patterns means that you can start changing them.

Enlist help.

If you’re up for going public with your filler word elimination project, you can recruit a friend or family member to help you. Ask them to count your filler words while listening in on several of your video conferences or phone conversations. Toastmasters International does this for members at its club meetings, and speaking from personal experience, it’s a really eye-opening exercise to have someone else track your filler words.

Replace filler words with a pause.

Whenever you’re tempted to insert a filler into your speech, pause instead. Allow that brief silence to happen. It’ll be scary at first, but with practice, it’ll feel more natural – and soon, you won’t even have to consciously make a choice. Those pauses will become part of your natural way of speaking, just like the filler words did. Only they’ll be a lot less distracting.

Want more strategies on how to sound confident when speaking? Click here for more tips.