Um, Er, Like, Uh

Because of my training work in public speaking over the past twenty years, I tend to interact with a lot public speakers who have strong opinions and 'rules' about verbal communication.

Because there are always some people who give as little effort as possible to their work, I have heard my fair share of public speaking assumptions and theories stated as facts by some of these public speaking gurus.

I need to clear something up. I need to clear it up based on my life of listening, study, and open-mindedness: Fillers are OK.

"Oh no he did'n!"

"Yeah, gurl. I totally did."

Unless you are one of the masterful top 1% of verbally talented and trained public speakers, do not fret about fillers. Fillers are what bean counter minds like to tally mark about another speaker at a speech training seminar. Ever heard of majoring in the minor? If you hone in on fillers as your main coaching point, you have no idea what you are doing. Stop It.

Now, yes, I know that too much of anything can be annoying. But what constitutes overuse of a filler is based on so many factors besides one listener's opinion - factors like, um, everyone else in the room. Because there are no defined rules in the court of public speaking law, somehow the rule of speaking just defaulted into: NEVER USE A SINGLE FILLER.

But that rule is wrong. It is a 'letter of the law' rule rather than a 'spirit of the law' rule. Let me do my best to persuade you.

For most speakers, being lasik-precise with one's language distracts the speaker's focus from hitting the intended message. If played out to its robotic end, this incessant filler-focus can, as Gordon Sumner said, dehumanize yourself. Practice avoiding filler when you are in everyday conversation with your friends or in inconsequential circumstances. Game time is not the time to try new moves unless they are well-rehearsed.

Again, yes, I understand annoyance due to overuse. I am aware of this. I am aware. I am. The problem is that a lot of people with a little knowledge are a dangerous body of rule makers. "Fillers" can actually serve a linguistic purpose. They are often called "discourse markers" by linguists, because they help listeners better understand meaning within spoken communication. Read this PDF for researched and studied details.

If you are watching a video clip of a comic from a performance in front of a paying audience, chances are that he/she is in the top slice of successful comedians, because most never make it past five-minute open mic night at Chuck's. When you listen to a comedian, chances are good that you will hear fillers. Whether you like a comic's humor or not, these people engage in arguably the most difficult and elusive communication objective on the planet: get a room full of total strangers to laugh using nothing but your live communication to drive the outcome. They know what they are doing with language, purposefully and intuitively. Comedians use fillers to create comic timing, characterization, 'relatability', and to get specific reactions and subtle points across.

Fillers can be either a purposeful style or unintentional, based on social factors such as age, gender, immediate friends, or role models. And certain words become more or less prevalent in our speech depending on the social dynamic of the moment. Personally, when I am in front of a group, my fillers drop significantly because my training of mastering concise word choice increases, and my language becomes more visually descriptive. When I am more relaxed and off-the-cuff, or I am telling a funny or personal story, my language is more kinesthetic and emotion-based. In those moments I feel my way through the conversation more, so fillers pop up more often.


Nobody except novices and the less successful or respected public speakers ever give me feedback after a public speaking event about how I need to eliminate any of my fillers, even though I virtually always use them. That is because when we have a powerful message and are able to create emotion in the speaking we do, the individual moments of individual words become unimportant to the audience.