When speaking, the average person uses about five filler words—such as um and uh—per minute, Noah Zandan, CEO and co-founder of science firm Quantified Communications, writes for the Harvard Business Review.
While these verbal crutches are common, overusing them can hurt your credibility in interviews or make audiences less interested in what you have to say. Fortunately, it’s possible to eliminate this habit with a bit of practice, no matter how uncomfortable or nervous you may feel when speaking in public.
The next time you feel like or you know start to form on your lips, take a short pause instead. “Great public speakers often pause for two to three seconds or even longer,” Zandan writes. “Our phonetic data shows that the average speaker only uses 3.5 pauses per minute, and that’s not enough.”
Although a short pause may feel like an eternity to you, Zandan notes that doing so can make you appear calmer and more collected. For that reason, people with a fear of public speaking could stand to benefit the most from this tip. (However, studies have shown that filler words aren’t necessarily related to nerves. Rather, they’re used to vocalize an upcoming pause while you search for a forgotten word or plan out your next sentence. Uh usually signals that a short pause is coming, while um typically denotes a longer pause.)
Instead of vocalizing your need to gather your thoughts, though, just take an actual pause. Not only will it give you time to take a deep breath and get back on track, but it may also enhance your speech. When they’re strategically placed, pauses can build suspense, drive home a point, mark a transition to a new topic, or give the audience time to process what you’ve just said. However, this only tends to work for pauses under five seconds, so time them accordingly.
For this practice to become a habit, you’ll have to become cognizant of your speech patterns. Try recording yourself the next time you give a public talk and play it back to help you identify which filler words you use the most. Once you’re aware of the areas that need improvement, they will be easier to fix. If you need a little extra help, Zandan suggests enlisting a friend or family member to clap or snap each time you use a filler word, which will help make you more aware of the problem. It’s, uh, sure to do the trick.