To ‘err’ is human: Language fillers and avoiding “erm”.

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1st August, 2022 Chantal Swainston No Comments

When listening back to podcasts, or radio slots, it’s natural to be really self aware of the language fillers you’re using. So what are fillers? They’re the words we use outside of the main point we’re making, they allow speakers time to pause and consider what to say next.

“Erm” is the one that crops up the most, but there’s also a lot of talk about “like”. We use words like these to structure sentences every day, but often we get self conscious about them when we listen back to ourselves.

Firstly, there’s no harm in using fillers.

Relying on “erm” to buy yourself a bit of a time mid-interview isn’t going to derail your point too much. But when it becomes distracting, and these filler words end up dominating the sentence structure, it can not only make your points hard to follow, it can feel like you’re not confident in whatever you’re discussing.

So we’re going to cover two things. Using less fillers, and finding some other ones to rely on so “erm” doesn’t take centre stage.

Using less fillers:

Ultimately, we use fillers to buy time, and to make sure we’ve thought thoroughly about our next point and how we’re going to make it. We also use them much more in natural conversation, than say a rehearsed speech or presentation.

The way to reduce fillers is simply to buy more time. Don’t jump into a verbal response until you’re happy with where you’ll start and finish the point, and don’t be afraid of leaving a few seconds before coming in with your answer.

It’s a simple one, in order to use less fillers, you need to find different ways to buy the time fillers give you.

What can this look like?

You can engage with the question before you answer it. Some classics you might hear a lot include “That’s a really interesting question”, or “We’ve not come at it from that angle before”.

Not only does this allow you to set up the state of the response (if you don’t have a strong answer, you can suggest that when you comment on the question). It also allows you to give an immediate emotional response to the question, while thinking about the more in depth answer.

If it’s a little more complex, you can set up your response and outline it. “That’s a really interesting question, and there’s two schools of thought on this”… listeners will know you’re about to make two separate points, and that the answer might be lengthy. It also forces you to think about how you’ll answer in entirety, not just the next sentence.

And with that, you can buy even more time, with pauses in between those sentences.

“That’s a really interesting question [pause] and there’s actually a few ways we can answer that [pause] let’s say there’s two schools of thought here…”

Build the habit

You might not have needed to speak with fewer fillers before. Maybe the opportunities you’ve had so far have been successful, but not as good as you know you can be. People are unlikely to criticise your use of ‘erm’ during a 1-2-1 work catch up, and it might be something you’re only working on now.

As with all things it takes practice, and a change of mindset, to cut the fillers. Start thinking about it in your next meeting, listen to people who’s speaking style you admire and see how they navigate buying time. Watch out for interviewees when you watch the evening news (often a good example of the great, and the not so great).

Next time you’re speaking, no matter how small scale, challenge yourself to use less fillers. Practice makes perfect, and it’s easier to change your style with smaller audiences first!

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