Most professionals put significant effort into presentation preparation. They research their subject, consider their audience, develop their content, and polish their PowerPoint. All this effort can be wasted if you overlook one aspect of the presentation: your delivery. Content matters, but so does form. When preparing for a presentation, you put much thought into what you will say. You must also consider how you will say it.
Despite your ambition to be as suave as Cary Grant, you can come off as sounding more like Barney Fife. Speakers can unwittingly sabotage themselves by using filler words. Peppering your speech with “um” and “uh,” “like,” or “y’know” makes you sound unintelligent. Don’t allow your manner of speech to detract from the content you’re trying to communicate.
The first step to breaking this negative habit is identifying your fillers. We all have them, but they’ve become so ingrained in our speech that it’s hard to notice them. A few approaches can help you pinpoint your go-to words, phrases, and vocalized pauses.
- Listen to yourself. Record a presentation and watch it back. You will quickly notice the vocal tics that permeate your speech.
- Ask others. Colleagues that work with you regularly are often aware of the peculiarities of your speech pattern. Ask others for feedback and be open to hearing what they have to say.
- Identify patterns. Don’t just notice what fillers you use; notice when you use them. Understanding why you reach for fillers will help you make better choices.
If you try to banish filler words from your presentations by a sheer act of the will, you are setting yourself up for failure. Rather than trying to stop senseless fillers, replace the habit with these more effective strategies.
- Practice. Filler words can be a symptom of not knowing your material thoroughly enough. You should be able to confidently give your presentation from an outline—even if an interruption derails your train of thought. Some people find using a script to prepare helpful, articulating everything they will say on paper ahead of time. Others find manuscripts constricting. If a script makes your presentation rigid or monotone, it should not be used. Know the preparation style that works best for you and practice until you can give your presentation clearly and dynamically.
- Pause. We often resort to filler words when we’re thinking. Take a few seconds to consider your thoughts before diving in. This not only eliminates the need for filler words, but it also allows a more coherent response. A gap may seem like an eternity from the speaker’s podium, but it will not seem nearly so long to your audience.
- Look. When reaching for a thought or point, it’s common to look at the ceiling or squint at your notes. Remember the importance of eye contact. Remind yourself to look your colleagues in the eye as you speak, showing your engagement through your nonverbals.
- Smile. Filler words are a symptom of nerves. These nerves can detract from your connection with your audience. Be warm and open. Even if your stomach is doing somersaults, a confident, genuine smile can put you and your audience at ease.
Your presentation can move from stumbling to suave with an inventory of your current verbal fillers and some intentional strategies. Filler words are a distraction that limits your effectiveness. When you clear the clutter from your speech, your audience can connect with you professionally and engage with your content.