Read below for Allison Shapira’s latest piece in the Harvard Business Review on how to recognize the impact filler words have and how to use them strategically!


When was the last time you heard someone start an important presentation or comment with something like this? So, um, I just think this is important. Vocal disfluencies, commonly described as filler words, are a common point of contention in public speaking. Some people disparage them as weak and hesitant, and others defend them as authentic and genuine.

We all know about um, ah, and like. Others I hear include: so (to start sentences), right? (to end sentences), kind of and sort of (in the middle of sentences). Every language has its own filler words, and people in the same organization tend to use the same fillers. When you’re the boss, your direct reports will subconsciously mimic your fillers.

Used sparingly, there’s nothing wrong with filler words. When you use them excessively, however, they can detract from your confidence and credibility. Imagine presenting a strong recommendation to your board of directors and using um in between every word; the constant fillers would undermine your message.

In one study published in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, Nicholas Christenfeld found that, “even though um’s do not seem to be a product of anxiety or lack of preparation…the average listener assumes that they are.”

In addition to filler words, certain hedge words and phrases can minimize the impact of your message: Maybe this is irrelevant, but . . . I may be way off base here, but…

My personal pet peeve is the hedge word “just,” especially when used in an otherwise powerful statement such as, “I just think this is a crucial moment for our company.”

In my classroom at the Harvard Kennedy School, I used to call out students when they used fillers while speaking up in class. They’d say something like, “So um, I’d just like to say” and I’d respond with, “Pause and breathe, and then start over.” When they started their sentences again, they often forgot what they wanted to say.

One year, the feedback I received in my course evaluations made me re-evaluate this practice. The feedback said, “You have such a strong message of authenticity in the class, that your focus on eliminating fillers feels overly perfectionist.”

Ouch. While that feedback was painful to receive, it also encouraged me to dive deeper into the possible, practical benefits of fillers and hedge words. Here are three strategic reasons for when to use them.

  1. To be diplomatic. In a training I led for one global bureaucracy, participants defended their use of hedge words. Given their organizational dynamics, leadership was highly sensitive to any type of feedback. As a result, people had to use hedging language to avoid offending their managers.
  2. Lesson: When you need to give delicate feedback or soften a message, consider using a hedge word like “just” or “simply” or a phrase such as “we may want to consider” in order to cushion how your message comes across.

  3. To hold the floor. When working in an international setting, one participant commented that if she paused in a meeting instead of using a filler, people would assume she was finished speaking and would jump in to interrupt her. The filler was her way of saying, “I’m not done yet.”
  4. Lesson: If you operate in an environment where people routinely interrupt you, the filler can serve as a strategic placeholder as you hold the floor. However, make sure your message is clear and concise, otherwise people will still interrupt during the fillers.

  5. To jump in. Many of our clients routinely ask how they can insert themselves into a conversation during a meeting, conference call, or when speaking on a panel. If they wait for a pause or for someone to call on them, they will never have an opportunity to speak up.
  6. Lesson: A well-placed “so,” “well,” or “actually” can be an effective tool to break into a conversation (perhaps in the middle of a rambling colleague’s filler words). Simply make sure you are not cutting someone off mid-sentence.

What kind of hedging language is better? Here are three phrases to replace in your professional language.

  1. Avoid “I think.” Many people will use “I think” when speaking up in a meeting, as a way of showing that they are not the expert on an issue. Instead, use the phrase “In my experience, I’ve found” which validates your knowledge or “our view is” which lends the weight of your entire organization.
  2. Avoid “I may be way off base.” People will use this when they have something unconventional to say, yet that hedging language devalues their comment before they even speak it. Instead, try, “Let’s look at this from a different perspective. What if…?” which shows creative thinking.
  3. Avoid “Sorry.” When people interrupt one another or speak up in a meeting, they will tend to apologize for it which reduces their credibility and authority. Instead, say “thank you” and then continue with the thought.

Language matters, and the words you use have an impact on your effectiveness as a speaker and as a leader. Contrary to popular wisdom, sometimes it’s OK to use fillers or hedge words. Recognize the impact these words have and use them strategically.