How to Coach Someone from Eating at the Filler Word Buffet

For over a year or more as I walked the halls at a large executive speaking coach client organization, I’d been told about an executive with the UM, AH and LIKE problem. YOU KNOW, those filler words people use when speaking, and in public speaking in particular.

They were correct but not complete. After a fortuitous introduction to work with him on a talk, I also heard RIGHT? and OK? Then I stopped keeping track.

He was like an all-you-can-eat buffet of disfluencies, the fancy term for “things that drive audiences crazy.”

I listened to him reveal a story he wanted to share at an upcoming event.

3 Problems at the Root of Filler Words

It was clear the filler word problem was inspired by three other problems, all of which were easy to spot even in the casual conversation:

  1. He was an out-loud thinker (aka walking in the woods off the trails).
  2. He wasn’t sure he was qualified to be in the job (aka Imposter Syndrome).
  3. He had bad breathing habits (aka from his chest with bad posture).

This is consistent with what we know to be true about filler words: they are really expressions of other challenges going on with the speaker.

3 Ways to Stop Filler Words in Public Speaking

So how do you coach to this? Well, you break down each of the issues and deliver some discreet public speaking skill training on each.

  1. Instead of thinking out loud, I taught him about structured thinking, which leads to concise storytelling. He began to speak with beginnings, middles and ends.
  2. While I’m not a counselor, I pulled evidence from his “journey story” to remind him that while he may not have envisioned himself in this successful career, he had made it. He was there. Be present with it and leave the history of the doubt behind because it was coming out in his “right?” and “ok?” pauses.
  3. I showed him physical improvements on how to breath, sit, position his spine, head and neck.

And I gave him the ultimate and simplest tip of them all.

Just try to say UM while you are taking a breath. Go ahead, try it. See what happens.

Yep. No more Ums.

Ready to hone your public speaking and presentation style? Register for our next class– the Executive Style and Delivery Workshop on June 7. Get the details here.


Ruth Milligan Articulation Executive Communication CoachRuth Milligan is the Founder, Managing Director and an Executive Coach and Trainer with Articulation. She is perhaps best known as one of the original curators for any TEDx event (the license program for TED). Since 2009, Ruth has selected and coached over 200 speakers who have taken the TEDxColumbus stage. She is often tapped as an expert in the TED-style of speaking and has authored a class on how to be a TEDx speaker coach. Connect with Ruth.