Storytelling: This Is, um, About Overcoming Filler Words.



Public speakers of all types, including storytellers, struggle with making words come out of their mouth in the order and pace that their brains create those words. These filler words, such as “so,” “um” and “well” come from a combination of habitual use and lack of confidence. You may be completely aware of your use of these sounds or you may not even know that you use them. As I have suggested many times, you really do need to record yourself speaking in front of a group. Listen for the fillers.

I contend that you can’t always escape using these words if you are practicing public speaking while maintaining a natural or organic voice rhythm. But, for the sake of your listeners, you can work on substantially limiting these sounds. Sooo, here are five ways, um, methods to overcome the filler-words problem in your oral storytelling.

1. Know your material.
Nothing takes the place of being very familiar with your story. Simply put, being confident in your mastery and crafting of your story, its order and meaning, will lessen your need to use filler words. The word or phrase “well…” when leading off a sentence is always an indicator to me that the storyteller is not prepared.

2. Slow down.
Filler words are what your mouth does while your brain is thinking. Speaking too fast, trying to get the words out “before I forget them” must be the biggest mistake of new storytellers. Even for those who are experienced speakers, who think that a fast pace reveals confidence, can still struggle with trying to remember the next image or phrase to speak. Slow down, close your lips, breathe and then speak.

3. Nod your head.
You are lost. Your mouth has run out of words. The moment (it’s just a moment I assure you) seems like forever. Your mouth is reaching for some sound to fill the space. Keep your lips closed and just nod your head as if to say, “Yes, I am bringing you more. Yes, take it all in.” A simple affirming gesture that give you a moment to stop and think.

4. Look at the audience.
In that moment of um, close the mouth again. Pause. Make a quick scan of the audience. Pick out a person or section of the audience and just smile or give a facial expression that matches the action of the story. Your brain will fill your mouth with words while you pause to engage the audience with your gaze.

5. Admit it.
Even the best storytellers occasionally have a train wreck of brain, words and mouth. Yet, if none of the suggestions above work, you can playfully say to the audience. “Whoops, my story feels so good (so big, so intense) that my mouth just ran ahead of my brain” or any variation of that. Real storytelling always acknowledges the audience in its creation; it is okay to tell them you are a bit ahead of yourself. Then, pause, breathe and continue your story. Use caution: if you need to use this “admit it” more than once in a single story, you will convince the audience that you really weren’t prepared.

These tips will help you work on the dreaded filler words. Awareness of your own art is important. Be sure you listen to yourself as you speak. Watch other storytellers at live events. What makes them good (or not so good) communicators? Do the use techniques to make their narrative flow more smoothly?

Sean Buvala is an experienced storyteller, author, practitioner and business coach. He’s been at this work of storytelling since 1985…long before there was this fad-like hype, buzz-words and the experts grasping at CEO-soothing (but useless) marketing lullabies about narrative. His Storytelling 101 workbook has helped many people learn and practice the essentials skills of oral storytelling.