OpenClipart-Vectors / Pixabay

Like verbal hiccups, filler words such as “um,” “ah,” “like uh,” “mm” and “oh” pepper our vocabulary and kill the impact of our key messages and important presentations.

Filler words also include those connector words we use unnecessarily such as “basically,” “actually,” and “literally,” and “I mean…really.”

Even accomplished speakers fall into the traps of using filler phrases like “you know,” “what I’m trying to say is,” and “I think that…”

Nobody is immune from this bad habit and in some cases, particularly if we are nervous, we take it to the extreme and completely diminish what we are trying to say.

For example, watch a very young Justin Bieber in this video being interviewed by Jay Leno and watch how he uses the filler word “like” and can’t escape a downward spiral into filler word oblivion:

Filler words are killer words

Filler words add nothing at all to your presentation. Instead, they weaken your effectiveness, your credibility, and your authority.

They send a message to your audience that you don’t know your subject matter as well as you should. They pull the power out of your presentation and leave you weak and stuttering and your audience frustrated and confused.

Everyone uses filler words to some degree, but few of us realize the degree to which they creep into our speech patterns.

To check, recruit a friend with a manual timer that they can click quietly each time you use a filler word. Then ask this friend to give 10 minutes of their time to hear your speech and click each time they hear any filler words.

If you can’t arrange that, record yourself or videotape yourself and do your own counting. If you have typed up your remarks in advance and you know the number of words you are using, and then you count the number of filler words that sneak in, you will have a very accurate assessment of the extent of your problem.

Even the most accomplished communicator may use too many filler words.

For example, listen to this presentation called “Advice to Entrepreneurs” from Virgin Group founder Richard Branson and notice how many times he slips “ah” in between his thoughts.

Why do we fall into this linguistic trap?

There are a number of explanations for why we fall into using filler words. The most widely quoted one is that our brain needs to catch up with our speech, so these words are used as little placeholders to create a pause for this to happen.

Another thought is that we use them to signal to our listeners that we are not done yet. We do not want them to interrupt until we have completed our thought.

Some analysts believe that it is a sign that we are not well-prepared or knowledgeable about our topic. It can also be an indication of nerves.

An example of how that is manifested is when normally good communicators use fillers when they are being interviewed.

As an example, watch this video of a 20-year-old Taylor Swift being interviewed by David Letterman and note her frequent use of the filler words “um,” “uh” and “like.”

Other theories are advanced by linguists Herbert Clark of Stanford University and Jean Fox Tree of University of California at Santa Cruz who studied the use of filler words in our language.

Their conclusion is that people who use fillers are not clumsy speakers who are having difficulty expressing themselves. Rather, they are intelligent speakers using these words and sounds to signal to their listeners that a delay is coming in their speech. In that way, they almost unconsciously use the filler words as a means of avoiding a gap of silence.

They note that the art of speaking is complex. When we are talking, we have to pay attention to what we are saying as well as keep track of the interaction we are having with the other person. This can lead us to need some space and time between thoughts.

Tackling the “um” habit

Regardless of the validity of the filler word habit, it is still annoying for people listening. It is distracting and makes the listener feel as if they must jump into gear mentally and help the speaker finish their thoughts.

While most public speakers agree that the occasional use of a filler word isn’t a major performance flaw, they all agree it must not get out of control.

So what is normal?

The average person speaks between 120 and 150 words a minute. That is between two and two-and-a-half words a second. It’s no wonder we sometimes need a pause.

In a normal situation, filler words make up between six to 10 percent of our speech. It is not only English speakers who use them. Variations of filler words show up in virtually every language in the world.

Preparing your presentation well, practicing it repeatedly and appearing on the stage well rested will go a long way to conquering the filler word pitfall. It is also important to feel you have the time to pause and endure a second of silence if you need it, instead of rushing in to fill it with a filler word.

Once you have assessed your own situation, monitor your progress. Determine what kind of situation makes you resort to filler words.

For example, accomplished speaker, actor and political activist Kal Penn is flawless in his presentations as a professional speaker as indicated in this address here at the Democratic National Convention:

But when Penn is interviewed on Jimmy Kimmel Live, in a situation where he had no way to practice his presentation and had to respond off-the-cuff, he uses filler words.

It shows how where we are and what we are being asked to do can influence our use of filler words.

To avoid using filler words when responding to questions, allow yourself time to pause, think and answer.

Another strategy is to make eye contact with your audience from the stage. When you meet a sympathetic response in eye contact from a person who is clearly interested in what you are saying, it stills your nerves and calms your brain and allows you to proceed without having to resort to the use of “ah” or “um.”

Read more: Your Resume’s Kiss of Death: 10 Words to Avoid