Um, Uh, and You Know: Killer Fillers in Public Speaking

I wish I could say I didn’t do it. I have spoken in a few thousand venues as a public speaker. You would think I could avoid them. I’m better than I used to be, but you are still likely to hear them when I speak.

“Thank you, uh, for the opportunity to speak today, I, um, am excited and passionate about this, uh, topic.” Arrrgghhhh!

They are called “fillers.” They are incidental sounds or words that we should not use when we speak. They distract. They cause the audience to lose confidence in the speaker. They indicate that the speaker is not well prepared.

I listened in person and via podcast to about 25 speakers the past three weeks. I was intentionally listening for these killer fillers. When it was all said and done, six fillers emerged as the most common. They are, in order:

  1. Uh. This non-word is a transition word that can indicate nervousness or lack of preparation. The speaker is trying to get to his or her next thought, but needs a bridge to get there. Some novice speakers use “uh” more than any word.
  2. You know. No we don’t; that’s why you are telling us. The speaker is seeking confirmation from the audience through this bridge word. If you note, he or she is usually looking right at the audience when these throwaway words are used. The speaker hopes to get at least the nod of a head for something other than sleep.
  3. Um. This non-word is a variance of “uh.” Surprisingly, it is more likely to be used by a more experienced speaker. Novices like “uh.” Seasoned speakers prefer “um.” So you are likely to hear an inexperienced bad presentation with “uh” or an experienced bad presentation with “um.”
  4. Et cetera. This one drives me crazy. The speaker is implying that he or she has a lot more to say, but the listeners will never know what it is. The real problem is that the speaker does not know how to land the presentation. If you hear someone say “et cetera,” you are likely to hear a speaker who struggles with brevity, clarity, and concise thoughts.
  5. In other words. So why do you need other words? Weren’t your original words sufficient? These speakers also lack clarity and conciseness. “In other words” allows them to drone on.
  6. Anyway. Sometimes used as “anyways.” Often speakers use this useless word after they think they’ve said something profound or funny. It’s like they are expecting a laugh track or applause. Nothing ever happens. And “anyway” is never defined.

How can we then avoid or minimize these killer fillers? Allow me these five suggestions:

  1. Listen to recorded presentations you’ve done repeatedly. It’s usually a painful but profitable process.
  2. Ask others to listen to you and evaluate you. Make certain the person will shoot straight with you. You might want to be careful if you use your spouse to be your critic. It can get ugly.
  3. Use a manuscript if you need to do so. I would rather someone read to me “uh” free than hear someone extemporaneously hit me with two dozen, “uhs,” “you knows,” and “et cetera.”
  4. Think about what your audience is hearing as you speak. Try to put yourself in their shoes. Think how your communication affects them or potentially affects them. Exercise empathy and lower the killer fillers.
  5. If possible, get written evaluations from the audience on your presentations. Again, the pain is worth the gain.

What killer fillers do you hear? How does that affect you as a listener? How can speakers minimize of even eliminate killer fillers?


  1. says

    As a listener they drive me up the wall, especially UH, UM, and you know. I sometimes get so distracted I listen to the “killer fillers” rather than the content. One suggestion I have given speakers is to eliminate these distractions in your everyday communication. If you can practice daily getting rid of them talking to your spouse, kids, neighbor, co-worker, and friends, it will help your speeches in the future.

  2. says

    Many times we put in these filler words because we aren’t prepared, but also to avoid a moment of silence – which we think makes us look even less prepared. But a split-second of silence is much better than “Um”. In fact, if we do it right, it looks like we planned a bit of silence for people to think about what we said :) Your comment on “et cetera” hit close to home, though!! I’m going to have to pay more attention to removing that phrase – and you’re right, I use it because I don’t know where to go next!

  3. says

    I agree with the earlier comments. As Randy said, “We do not like silence” It makes us uncomfortable. As far as how to break the bad habits, one of the best for me was my preaching class with Dr. York. In addition to his critique, I was forced to watch myself and it was sometimes painful.

  4. says

    Another trend I see in speakers is when they speak off script, they are likely to increase the number of killer fillers. This applies to my own experiences. However, once we get into the presentation many times the distractions disappear. I have to be careful when I start speaking off the cuff, to be careful of the words I choose.

  5. Jonathan says

    The best advice I can give here is “preach before you preach.” Get on stage early in the morning and preach your whole sermon to an empty room. It helps me in tremendous ways, beyond just the “stammering” part of communication.

    And use a timer when you preach. I find that in using a timer, I’m less likely to step into totally unplanned thoughts that can include much “stammer talk.” A clock just won’t do! You can get an app on your smartphone or tablet, set a time limit, and watch it crawl backward (just like a football game clock).

  6. Hal Hunter says

    Years ago a college instructor gave me the best advise ever regarding effective public speaking; it covers a multitude of problems speakers inflict on their listeners, including the fillers. Make an intentional effort to slow down your speaking cadence. The fillers often occur when our words get ahead of our thoughts. Slowing down helps resync our words and our thoughts. It also makes us more understandable, and in a large venue improves perception of the amplified speech.

    • Bill W says

      This is exactly what I’ve learned over the years in the workplace–slow down, be concise, clear, and direct. I’ve actually excelled in job interviews and presentations because of this. Coherent brevity is becoming more and more of an asset as the “you knows” are taking over the world.

  7. says

    Too true! One that I catch myself in often is saying, “you know?” and “right?” Like you said, I’m always doing it looking at the audience trying to squeeze out some feedback to ensure I’m connecting. I think every once in a while this is OK, but there are other ways to get feedback that I need to work to be more intentional about.

  8. says

    I may be fooling myself, but I beleive I have improved in this area over the past several months. The reason is that as the single staff member of a small church (not even a church secretary) with an old cassette tape recorder in the sound system, my sermons would be recorded on cassette. I would then have to play them back every week into the computer and convert the files to MP3 format to post on our church website. This forced me to listen to my own sermons (AM and PM) each week as they were being recorded into the computer. Then using the free Audacity program to convert them to MP3’s I would see a visual represnetaiton and could see how often pauses and silence occurred in my speaking. Talk about humbling! But I beleive that constant listening to myself has made me much more conscious of the “vocal noises” I produce when speaking. Now that I use a digital recorder to record my messages in MP3 format, I have to consciously continue to guard against falling back into old habits.

  9. Ron Harvey says

    There is no substitute for over preparation and over presentation. I write a manuscript(one day I will publish) for every message, lesson or talk. I go over it multiple times reading it and correcting it. I want the Holy Spirit to get involved from the get go. I learn from the giants that there are no short cuts to study/preparation. I also listen to a lot of good preacher’s audio

  10. says

    Rehearse your speech or sermon. It will help cut the filler words for sure. It’s also helpful to know which filler words you personally using so you can be conscious of it and change.

  11. Lee says

    Spend time in prayer over your message. Allow God to fill in the areas that we fill with pause of thought.

    Ad another work- I here preachers now stop and say ok? it is a new form of uh, you know,…

  12. Drew Dabbs says

    Great post, Dr. Rainer. These fillers bug me as much in conversational dialogue as they do in sermons/presentations. The overuse and misuse of the word “like” makes my skin crawl, as does the phrase, “I know, right?” I literally want to scream every single time I hear these. I started working several years ago toward eliminating unneccessary words from my conversations, and it has greatly helped me avoid them in sermons. I also started writing a full manuscript very early in my preaching ministry, which, in addition to practically eliminating fillers, keeps me from chasing rabbits that eat up precious time.

  13. Daniel says

    Thanks for the post Dr. Rainer.
    Something similar to this post in regards to writing I see (and surely do) is regarding capitalization. How often do you see Church/church, Him/him,His/his, Biblical/biblical and others misused? If you have blogged about this before could you link that here?
    Thanks again.

  14. says

    As a public speaker, I’ve given several presentations in my life. It bugs me when I hear other speakers use these filler words. You would think someone, such as a family member or close friend, would notice and mention it to them at some point. I have a friend from another country that speaks broken English. He always says et cetera twice after each sentence! It’s very hard to listen to this, but I don’t have the heart to say anything to him since he already struggles with our language! At least he is not giving presentations!

  15. says

    I’m an Ummer and Uhher speaker. So I can feel the pain of those who struggle with this. In fact, I’m paranoid about it as I have the pleasure of speaking to our youth group tonight.

    Filler words, when used in excess, can become extremely annoying and noticeable. One that I’ve noticed is the overuse of Jesus during prayers.

  16. Bruce Raley says

    Another killer filler is introducing a subject, then saying “I’ll say more about this later”. If it needs to be introduced, address the topic!

  17. CJ says

    Good post, Thom. Sometimes the fillers are just a bad habit, not necessarily reflecting poor preparation. I am thankful for my advisor in graduate schoool. He would have us practice giving talks and tap on the table every time we used a filler. With someone knocking on the table every time an ah,uh, um came out, it didn’t take long to break this bad habit!

  18. says

    I’ve been convicted lately about becoming too fixated on polished speaking. While I’m not endorsing sloppy communication I think we are wise to recall Paul’s statements about outward impressiveness and eloquence of speech (1 Cor. 2:1; 2 Cor 11:6) or what was said about his apparently unimpressive speaking skills (2 Cor. 10:10). We need to strike a balance and I suppose that an uneducated, un-eloquent communicator is as fit a candidate to be used of God as one who has revised his sermon manuscript to the point of polished perfection. My belief is that the more important issue rests in where our trust finds itself: our skill or God’s Spirit?

    • Thom Rainer says

      Well stated Jeff. I think the primary issue is that we give our best for the glory of God. Some will be better than others; most can improve.

  19. says

    The intent here is to increase awareness of the filler words, and provide some proven ways to help get yourself further out of the way. Most people have general catch-phrases they use all the time. In addition to reviewing my recorded voice, a great help to me is listening to a variety of speakers. Then I challenge myself to try and improve my delivery. The value of improving my delivery is that the message of hope, encouragement, or actuation will be more easily heard and understood enabling the audience to actually use what is being said.

  20. says

    Listen to myself?! Too painful. Seriously tho’, I stepped out on faith on day and listened to one of my sermons on our website. I’m surprised ANYBODY comes back to my church after hearing it. But, it has been a tremendous correcting aid for me, and I’m sure anyone else like me who suffers from OSD – Occupational Speaking Disorder!

  21. Tim Campbell says

    I actually have made a very small sticky note with “uh” or “YK” on my notes i place where the bright orange catches my eye as a reminder to pause, then speak. I hate it when I listen and hear this. Usually happens when I am in a hurry and have not stopped to focus on my “delivery” before I preach/teach. When I do this, these annoying habits are lessened.

  22. Bill W says

    This is wonderful, Thom, but the one that seriously caught my eye is, “in other words…”. Currently I can hear three prominent pastors/teachers saying this in nearly every one of their sermons (MacArthur, Dever, Piper) and probably many others. But then I scold myself thinking that because they say/use this phrase doesn’t remove your premise. I think it’s a good bridge to explain something in a different way. So, just wanted to let you know I was struggling with that one. Oops, is “so” another filler?? HAHA.

  23. says

    Thom… I just preached for the first time today. Two services. About 80-100 people in each service. I felt the nervousness in the first one, but got much better feedback and crowd “interaction” in that service rather than in the second service. I have only received the audio for the second service so far, and I heard “um”, “uh” and “you know” SO many times. I had no clue that I even talked that way until I heard myself! This led me to google those three filler killers and landed on this post!. I told my wife that I officially have a New Year’s resolution! To cut that mess out! I begin Seminary in the Fall and hopefully that will help me a lot. I did prepare pretty well for the sermon, I had my content down to bullet points and was still able to communicate all of it. Yet it was when I strayed even with just one extra sentence that the killer fillers showed up. Thankfully I’m just an intern and the congregation has been my friend long before I preached to them. It was truly an eye-opening experience. It was also the best argument ever for a scripted sermon! I’m probably going that route next, at least for a little while. Thanks for this post and the suggestions!

  24. Thom Rainer says

    Peter –

    Welcome to this blog! I’m glad we made this connection. Thanks for the app recommendation. I plan on downloading it in a few minutes.

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