Quality of speaking crumbles with filler words

Ellie Prober, Staff Writer

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Senior Julia Shelley practices one of her speeches, which is titled “The Hero Complex.” Members of Speech Team put hours into practice to avoid mistakes and the use of filler words in their performances. Photo by Suzanna Creasey

As the day of the speech tournament began to approach, senior Julia Shelley practiced and rehearsed her speech as much as possible. Finally, the day arrived. She stood and faced her audience, but she encountered a problem. Searching her brain for any words to say, she had a startling realization: she could not remember a single word of her speech.

“I said something along the lines of, ‘like, as, kind of the like, like thing,’ just, kind of, filling the space until I remembered [my speech],” said Shelley. “I have a really negative memory of just kind of throwing it all out there because that’s how I kind of handle [those situations]. I just kind of freeze up and forget, and it all comes [spilling] out.”

The words Shelley used during her speech are known as filler words. According to Sarah Ilie, Speech Team head coach, filler words are a method of verbal coping used in an attempt to fill silence.

Shelley said she believes filler words add no benefits to a statement.

“When you think about it, they are just filler words, so … they don’t really add anything to what you’re saying,” said Shelley. “They don’t necessarily detract from [what you are saying] either, but I feel as though [the lack of filler words] helps make things more concise and efficient when you can kind of go through an idea and kind of get it out there without having to pause to use filler words.”

During a phone interview, Sean O’Rourke, director of the center for speaking and listening at Sewanee: The University of the South, said he believes filler words are used by all types of people in today’s world, including well-educated people. Filler words are not often found in writing, and yet they are everywhere when we speak. 

“I believe that [filler words] come from a number of sources,” said O’Rourke. “One of them is we don’t value speaking as much as we value writing, certainly in that we allow ‘um’ and ‘ah’ and ‘er’ into our speech when we wouldn’t ever let it into our writing.”

English teacher Janice Sit said she avoids filler words to prevent sounding immature.

“I’ve become more conscious of using filler words less just because …  I don’t want to sound like I’m a teenager, and I’m not trying to sound like a teenager, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t use them,” Sit said.

In an e-mail, O’Rourke said that using filler words such as “I feel like” can be a method of taking responsibility away from the speaker.

When it comes to getting rid of filler words from our vocabulary, O’Rourke said the added words do not help us to show our best selves.

“I think that we should try to get rid of filler words,” said O’Rourke. “They’re not evil, they’re not sinful, they’re more like, well, having acne instead of a clear complexion. … It’s not bad or evil, it’s just not what you want.”

Shelley said trying to remove filler words from her vocabulary has benefitted her in many ways, including gaining the ability to better capture the attention of whoever is listening to her.

“I feel like [not using filler words] makes me sound a lot more confident in what I’m saying, because I don’t really diminish it with filler words, or I try really hard not to,” Shelley said.

O’Rourke said the use of filler words also makes people seem untrustworthy. Avoiding filler words can make a speaker seem as though they know a lot about the subject of their speech.

“With public or civic or professional leaders, when they’re asked direct questions that they should know the answers to, and they fill their answers with ‘um’ and ‘er’ and ‘ah,’ it makes them less trustworthy and less competent in the minds of the [listener],” said O’Rourke. “It’s also true of media professionals like newscasters and radio broadcasters. Finally, I think we expect more of people like ministers and other leaders like CEOs of businesses. When those people use ‘um’ and ‘ah’ and ‘er,’ we tend to think less of them because we hold them to a higher standard.”

Ilie said the best way to remove filler words from vocabulary is becoming aware when you are using them.

“If you just simply pause for a moment, think, breathe and then talk, rather than trying to fill that void with ‘um’ or ‘like,’ then you might find you’re more of a thoughtful speaker, rather than trying to fill the air with things that don’t mean anything,” Ilie said.

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Quality of speaking crumbles with filler words