How does your impression change when a knowledgeable, professional-looking speaker opens his mouth and liberally sprinkles "um", "you know", "uh" or "like" throughout his presentation?
Chances are you become quite annoyed with the constant use of filler words which add absolutely nothing to the message and, in fact, detract from it. Your attention wanders and you start to question the speaker's credibility, thinking him, at best, unprepared and, at worst, inarticulate.
WHY DO WE USE THEM?
If these meaningless little words are so damaging, why do we, as speakers, use them so frequently? Two culprits: lack of preparation and lack of awareness.
The filler word becomes a verbal crutch that gives us time to think, particularly when we are transitioning from one idea to another. Which of course means that we are not as well prepared as we should be. Use of fillers also may indicate a less than robust vocabulary, allowing us time to search for the appropriate word.
Many speakers simply are not aware how frequently filler words creep into their formal and informal communication, nor how distracting they are to the listener. It simply becomes habit.
Listen to Condoleeza Rice deliver a speech or respond to a reporter's questions. An otherwise impressive, articulate, intelligent woman, she peppers her comments with "uh". Clearly she is not ill-prepared or struggling with an inadequate vocabulary. It has just become mechanical.
WHAT TO DO
The fix is simple but requires you to be intentional about correcting this shortcoming.
1. Become aware that you use filler words too much. Record yourself making a presentation or speech and count how many filler words you use. For an objective appraisal, give a friend or colleague a list of the filler words you want to eliminate and have them count.
2. Consciously substitute a pause...yes, silence...for each filler word. This not only eliminates the offending fillers, it helps the audience absorb your message.