“Um, like, Taylor Swift is like, um, so awesome…”
New research conducted by Edinburgh University has found that English speakers, especially younger ones and especially women (like, um, Taylor Swift) are tending use more ‘um’s in their conversation than ‘er’s (or ‘uh’s if they’re from North America), which tend to be used more by older, male speakers.
There are some interesting theories about why that might be, but I’m more interested in why we use filler words in general, and how we can avoid them. Because, um, I think they’re, er, best avoided, y’know?
Most people get annoyed, to some degree, by the overuse of filler words or ‘filled pauses': usually by other people doing it, but often when they do it themselves. I have lots of clients who want to deal with their habit of ‘um-ing’ and ‘er-ing’ constantly.
Often it’s the older generation who get grumpy about youngsters like Taylor Swift and their fondness for ‘like’.I spoke to a woman recently who wanted to find a way to stop her ten-year-old daughter saying ‘…though!’ at the end of every sentence, like Lauren the ‘am I bovvered’ girl from The Catherine Tate Show. She thought it was a sloppy habit and, worse, made her daughter sound unintelligent.
It’s because filler words are an unconscious attempt to keep the other person engaging in the conversation, even though you can’t think of what to say: ‘listen, there’s still noise coming out of my mouth, keep listening and it’ll soon turn into meaningful noise’.
Fillers are a substitute for genuine engagement: they’re the conversational equivalent of a webpage that keeps buffering every few seconds. Very difficult to stay focused, as a listener, when the speaker is constantly putting you on hold.
But come on – hardly anyone speaks in complete sentences. Even very quick-witted clever people need time and space to find the words to express themselves. The trick is to do that without the bursts of conversational white noise that put listeners off and make you seem lazy or dim in your speech.
So, how can we avoid using fillers and still give ourselves time to find the words?
It’s much better to use PAUSES and ENERGY to hold people’s attention while your formulate your thoughts.
Pauses are really useful, for the listener and for you the speaker. For you, it’s a brief moment to think what you want to say next, and for your listener, it’s enough time to take in what you’ve just said, before you move on. As long as you pause BETWEEN thoughts, not in the middle of them, it won’t break your flow.
But if you keep pausing, how do you stop people from losing interest – or cutting in, before you’ve finished what you want to say?
This is where ENERGY and INFLECTION come into it. If you can have confidence that the pauses will give you time to find the words, then what you do actually say can be full of vocal energy, rather than trailing off while you think of what coming next. And if you’re speaking to someone in person, you can still engage with them using your eyes and facial expression, even though you’re momentarily silent.
It’s when the energy drops, that people lose interest – not just because there is no noise issuing from your mouth!
And you can use a bright, rising INFLECTION to convey that you have more to add (not a questioning inflection – a blog on ‘upspeak’ and ‘question intonation’ is coming soon!).
The important thing is to use the WORDS, and the PAUSES between thoughts, to keep people engaged – then it won’t matter whether you’re ‘um-ing’, ‘er-ing’, or ‘whatever-ing’. And Edinburgh University will just have to find something else to spend their time studying…