I’ll start with the tip, then unpack the reason why it works and explain how to apply it. To avoid those hemming and hawing filler words—um, y’know, like—and give your presentations the polish of eloquence:
Make eye contact.
An Excursion into Psycholinguistics
To avoid filler words, it helps to understand why we say them, which falls under the domain of psycholinguistics.
When you and I are having a conversation, we take turns speaking, and we use a variety of verbal and non-verbal cues to signal when to switch. I’ll ask a question and then pause, and you instinctively know that it is your turn to talk. While you’re telling a story, you’ll pause periodically to see if I am following, and I will make an encouraging sound (“mm hm” or “go on”) to confirm that it is still your turn. You might say something that sparks an idea in me that I very much want to share, and the changes in my facial expression—bright eyes and an intake in breath—convey my request to have a turn. If I get these cues wrong and repeatedly speak during what you consider your turn, you will think I’m rude and interrupty.
Note that most of those transitions were signaled by a pause. To avoid being interrupted, when you need a moment to organize your thoughts but are not ready to relinquish your turn, you’ll phonate (fancy linguist term for “make noise with your speech apparatus”). You don’t have any words to say, but you want to fill the silence to retain your hold on the conversation, so you’ll use meaningless words. You’ll say “um.”
Maintaining Your Turn While Presenting
Consider how turn negotiation changes when you are presenting in front of an audience. Your instincts tell you that a pause will cause you to lose your turn, but in reality, you’re on stage. It’s your show. We in the audience have granted you an extended turn. You would feel uncomfortable in a one-on-one conversation talking for 20 minutes without exchanging turns, but it is normal, expected, and exactly appropriate during a presentation.
How do you override the unconscious desire to say “um” to maintain your turn? You make eye contact with your audience members. Deliberate, focused eye contact. Avoid scattershot scans over their heads or a fixated stare at the clock on the back wall. Instead, look at the members of your audience. Deliver a clause or a whole sentence to one person, then connect with another person for the next. Two beneficial side-effects are better reception from your audience and improved pacing in your delivery. Deliberate pauses become built in as you deliver points to different individuals.
When you make eye contact, your unconscious mind gets direct evidence that it is still your turn. You can see that there are no bids from the audience. You can feel the audience’s attention. That need to fill pauses with noise melts away.