I was co-facilitating a workshop when my colleague and I noticed we were both using crutch words such as um, ah, you know, so, like, well, and right? We discussed how the use of crutch, filler, or fill-in words increased the duration of our workshops and made us appear less knowledgeable. We wanted to do something about it and agreed we would. 

We came up with a simple plan to help us identify when we used crutch words. We would count the number of times the one facilitating used a fill-in and marked it on a tick sheet. This not only made us both self-aware, but it also implemented a bit of competition between us. Over time, we became aware when others used crutch words and, at times, even counted theirs. 

I continue to watch and improve my use of crutch words to this day. Do I still stumble and use one now and then? Sure—but now I am more aware when I do.

We know it’s hard to pay attention to a speaker when every third word is a filler, but it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly how those verbal crutches affect our experience. An analysis of over 4,000 spoken communication samples identified how much speakers rely on filler words and how those words affect the way their audiences perceive them. It found that the excessive use of fillers can negatively influence audiences in many ways. These three critical factors are negatively correlated with too many fillers:

  1. To get your message across effectively, you must keep your audience engaged. When you use excessive fillers, audiences are less likely to hang onto your every word because the fillers get in the way of the emotional stories, information, or research you’re trying to share.
  1. Audiences want to believe that you are acting and speaking naturally—the way you might in a one-on-one conversation. While, of course, most people use fillers in casual conversation, bringing them to a presentation can distract from your core personality and make you sound nervous, distracted, or disengaged rather than authentic.
  1. If you want your audience to buy into your message, you must make it clear, logical, and easy to follow. Unfortunately, having to filter through crutch words to catch the important parts requires more cognitive effort than audiences are willing to put forth. So, too many fillers will likely mean they’ll tune out in favor of an easier mental task—such as thinking about their to-do lists.

So why do we use fill-in words, and what can we do to minimize our use of them? When you get rattled while speaking—whether you’re nervous, distracted, or at a loss for what comes next—it’s easy to lean on filler words. 

One of the ways to eliminate such words from your speech is to replace them with pauses. These give us a moment to collect our thoughts before we press on, and in some cases, they may be valuable indicators that the audience should pay special attention to what comes next.

To train yourself to do this, take these three steps.

  1. First, identify your crutch words and pair them with an action. Every time you catch yourself saying “like,” for example, tap your leg.
  2. Once you’ve become aware of your filler words as they try to escape your lips, begin forcing yourself to be silent.
  3. Finally, practice more than you think you should. The optimal ratio of preparation to performance is one hour of practice for every minute of the presentation.

Despite how they may feel at first, well-placed pauses make you sound calm and collected, and they help in three ways:

  1. Collect your thoughts: If you lose your train of thought, a pause gives you time to get back on track. If the pause isn’t too long (no more than five seconds), the audience won’t hold it against you.
  2. Calm your nerves: Taking a pause before starting a speech is especially important for people with a fear of public speaking, as it helps calm nerves. The tactic is useful in the middle of a speech as well. If you find yourself getting flustered, pause briefly to take a deep breath (as long as it’s not audible or obvious) and reset.
  3. Build suspense: Pauses aren’t always a defensive tactic. Strategically placed silence can build suspense, emphasize a point, or give the audience time to absorb a key insight.

Like filler words, pauses give you a chance to take a break and figure out what comes next. However, a pause makes you sound confident and in control, whereas overused filler words are distracting and make you sound like you don’t know what to say.

Language matters and the words you use have an impact on your effectiveness as a speaker and as a leader. But keep in mind, used sparingly and effectively, filler words can make you more relatable to your audience, give you time to catch your breath, and emphasize key points. That’s why Google built fillers into the latest version of its AI assistant, Duplex. But when they become crutch words, used out of nervousness or lack of preparation, they hurt your credibility. 

As you prepare for your next presentation, identify the words you lean on most and train yourself to avoid them. Then, next time you’re in front of an audience, use silence to gather your thoughts rather than filling the air with sound.

Finally, I can’t stress the importance of preparation enough. Nerves are one of the biggest reasons people overuse vocal fillers. The less prepared you are, the more nervous you’ll be, which will likely cause you to speak too quickly, trip over your words, and forget what’s next. So, make sure you practice!