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Um, Uh, Like, Ah, You Know?: Why We Use Verbal Fillers And How To Avoid Them

Verbal Fillers

Verbal fillers are sounds that fill gaps in our speech as we think about what to say next. They are considered a part of nonverbal communication because they are not like typical words that stand in for a specific meaning or meanings.

Verbal fillers such as “um,” “uh,” “like,” and “ah” are common in regular conversation and are not typically disruptive. Verbal fillers can even serve a purpose: for example, helping a person “keep the floor” during a conversation if they need to pause for a moment to think before continuing on with verbal communication.

Verbal fillers in more formal settings, like a public speech, can hurt a speaker’s credibility.

 A recent article in the International Business Times titled "Like, Uh, You Know: Why Do Americans Say 'You Know' And Use Other Verbal Fillers So Often?" explores the issue of verbal fillers.

The author notes an example of Harvey Weinstein, the famous Hollywood movie producer, doing an interview on CNN and using the filler "you know" 84 times during the broadcast! Here's one sentence from the interview that illustrates his noticeable overuse of verbal fillers:

"And then I met, you know, the Giffords, I mean whatever, and you know, they're amazing, Gabby, you know, and Mark, you know, and just incredible to me what they've done and what Mayor Bloomberg has done."

You can check out the full transcript for yourself here.

We can't just pick on Mr. Weinstein, we've all used more than our share of verbal fillers. As a scholar and teacher of speech, it's important to note that we can lessen our use of fillers, which may make our messages clearer and more credible.

Verbal fillers are often used subconsciously and can negatively affect your credibility and reduce the clarity of your message when speaking in more formal situations. In fact, verbal fluency is one of the strongest predictors of persuasiveness.[i]

Becoming a higher self-monitor can help you notice your use of verbal fillers and begin to eliminate them. Beginner speakers can often reduce their use of verbal fillers noticeably over just a short period of time.

Fluency Hiccups

Verbal fillers are part of a larger category of problematic speech elements that I call fluency hiccups in my book Communication in the Real World. As is the case with most communication phenomena, knowing more about them can help us become better communicators.

Fluency refers to the flow of your speaking. To speak with fluency means that your speech flows well and that there are not many interruptions to that flow.

Fluency hiccups are unintended pauses in a speech that usually result from forgetting what you were saying, being distracted, or losing your place in your speaking notes. Fluency hiccups are not the same as intended pauses, which are useful for adding emphasis or transitioning between parts of a speech. While speakers should try to minimize fluency hiccups, even experienced speakers need to take an unintended pause sometimes to get their bearings or to recover from an unexpected distraction. Fluency hiccups become a problem when they happen regularly enough to detract from the speaker’s message.

If you do lose your train of thought, having a brief fluency hiccup is better than injecting a verbal filler, because the audience may not even notice the pause or may think it was intentional.

Common Causes of Fluency Hiccups

  • Lack of preparation. Effective practice sessions are the best way to prevent fluency hiccups.
  • Not writing for speaking. If you write your speech the way you’ve been taught to write papers, you will have fluency hiccups. You must translate the written words into something easier for you to present orally. To do this, read your speech aloud and edit as you write to make sure your speech is easy for you to speak.
  • A poorly prepared speaking outline. Whether it is on paper or notecards, sloppy writing, unorganized bullet points, or incomplete/insufficient information on a speaking outline leads to fluency hiccups.
  • Distractions. Audience members and the external environment are unpredictable. Hopefully audience members will be polite and will silence their phones, avoid talking while the speaker is presenting, and avoid moving excessively. There could also be external noise that comes through a door or window. A speaker can also be distracted by internal noise such as thinking about other things.

Hopefully this information can help you become a better communicator!

[i] Owen Hargie, Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice, 5th ed. (London: Routledge, 2011), 81.

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