How to Eliminate Nasty Non-Words from Your Public Speaking

non words

We’ve heard the presenter whose 10 minutes on the agenda is so riddled with “umms” that people start making tallies on post-it notes.

Or the poor guy painfully unaware that his co-workers organize over/under betting centered on the number of times he’ll utter “whatnot.”

When I coach executives on presenting with confidence, repeated non-words are one of the biggest verbal communication issues my clients encounter.

Non-words, or sometimes called filler words, are words we unconsciously throw into our verbal communication that have no purpose. They add nothing to our message. They sneak into even the most polished presenter’s speak and wreak havoc.

Common non-words and non-phrases

  • umm, uuuh, aaah
  • right?
  • actually
  • basically
  • ya know?
  • I mean
  • sort of

So that’s not all.

So there’s one more I must add.

So if you pay attention, you will hear it everywhere.

The dangers of non-words

Non-words typically surface in our speech out of nervous energy. They also serve as a crutch; an easy (but lazy) way to transition from one idea to another. The problem with using non-words are:

  • You don’t sound credible.
  • You don’t sound prepared.
  • You DO sound nervous.
  • Non-words are distracting to your audience.
  • Non-words load the listeners with extra stimulus to process.

Are you a non-worder? Probably. We all are. Although when used sparingly, there’s no issue.

The problem is that most of us have little awareness about how often we utter non-words, and the effect they have on our audience.

Steps to Eliminating Non-Words

  1. Notice others. Start paying attention to the radio, tv, your family, friends and colleagues. Train your ears to hear non-words and notice how it adds nothing to effectively communicating a message.
  2. Listen to yourself. As difficult as it is to hear a recording of our voice, it’s the best way to observe and build awareness for your non-word habit. A smartphone or tablet makes it easy. Pay attention to where and how often you throw in the non-words.
  3. Ask others for feedback. Request a co-worker listen to you at your next meeting or presentation. Ask them to count how often you use non-words, notice which are most common for you, and provide you other vocal feedback such as pace, volume, inflection or uptalking.
  4. Practice. We’re more likely to use non-words when we are not comfortable with our message. Rehearse your content, practice your key points. Preparation helps eliminate nervousness.
  5. Slow down. When you slow your pace and take the time to articulate each syllable, the non-words start dropping off. The advice I tell my biggest non-word offenders — replace your go-to non-word with a pause.

When presenting a proposal to executives, being interviewed on NPR, or speaking at a conference, you want to be remembered for your expertise, passion and conviction. Don’t be remembered for being crowned the Umm Master.

Marta Steele is a Partner at PeopleResults and hopes to eliminate the non-word “so” from her conversations. Connect on Twitter @MartaSteele, or through email at