We all know someone who does it. It may be us. At a natural point of pause, you begin the next sentence with “Ummm, as argued below….”

Or maybe you begin the answer to a question with, “Uhhh, your honor, that’s a good question.”

I’ve always called them “verbal fillers” — the linguistic term is “speech disfluency.” From an oral argument perspective, the problem with them for me is that once I start hearing them from others, I mostly only hear them, not the underlying discussion.

How do you minimize these brief sounds that may harm your underlying presentation? A verbal filler is almost always just to reduce the silent time while your brain catches up with what you want to say — it is therefore, most important to learn how you pause to collect your thoughts. Get comfortable with a look down at your notes, a deep breath, a tip of the head. Learn a replacement phrase: “may I have a moment to collect my thoughts?” Practicing replacing your verbal filler with a thoughtful pause (or actual phrase) will reduce the occurrence.

Even if you can’t train them away, don’t fret: at least one study has found that some verbal fillers improve recall of the underlying content.

My own use of verbal fillers reduced greatly in college due to one intimidating professor. I attended the University of Virginia and took a newswriting class taught by someone whose accent and height reminded me of Foghorn Leghorn. This otherwise gracious southern gentleman once barked in class to a student reading their class assignment: “WHAT PART OF SPEECH IS UMMM, SON?” I was never afflicted again.

Practice Pointer:  Learning your own verbal tics requires recording yourself. Verbal fillers aren’t often heard by the speaker themselves without recording. Think about a deep breath or a physical move replacing the noise used to fill language.