Filler Words in Professional Communication: How Speech Therapists in Toronto Help

Written by: Dain Hong / Communication / January 2019

Um, basically, fillers are seriously hard to avoid, because, you know, it provides time to think.  

What are fillers?

We use filler words and phrases, such as um, basicallyand you know to fill our pauses during speech. When we rely too much on these words in our formal and informal settings, however, we may be perceived as unconfident and unprofessional. Even worse, our message may be clouded by these overly distracting words.  


For these reasons, many individuals hoping to improve their presentation and communication skills seek to eliminate these meaningless words. What is important to remember before moving towards such a goal is to realize that fillers have meaning. In fact, each filler word serves a unique role in demonstrating thoughtfulness, intensity, or exclamation. Whatever its function, fillers reveal the nuances of an interaction, bringing to light the subtle differences in the perspective and mood of the speaker. Thus, the key to effective communication isn’t in removing fillers completely from one’s speech; rather, it is in understanding the purpose of each filler word and using them appropriately.


Time To Think

Let’s first examine the most frequently used fillers: um, uhand er. These words show that the speaker is hesitant and is thinking about his response. Although a formal presentation peppered with such words may give off the impression that the speaker is unprepared or uninterested, these words used appropriately in social settings can effectively demonstrate to the listener that a thoughtful reply is in preparation. Um, in a sentence like “um, I prefer the blue shirt,” can portray the speaker’s attentiveness to and consideration of the question. Similarly, a filler like hmm can show that the speaker is engaging in a process of decision making, and thus provide detail to the listener about the unvocalized perspective of the speaker.  

Add Strength To An Idea

Moreover, fillers like actually, basically and seriously add strength to the idea that it describes. Take for example, “ActuallyI am a seriously avid fan of the Star Wars trilogy. I’ve basically memorized all the lines of Luke Skywalker.” The listener can glean from these adverbs that the speaker is enthusiastic about the topic. Although the adverbs may not add additional information, they provide a glimpse into the emotionality of the speaker. As long as the words actually, basically and seriously have a meaning equivalent to in factin conclusion, and most definitelyrespectively, their original function and power are maintained. 

Connect With The Listener

Some filler phrases often characterizing everyday speech include you see, you knowand you know what I mean. Though each phrase serves a special function, with the first used to share something the listener may not know, second for something the listener may know, and the third to check in on the comprehension level of the listener, all have one common factor— to connect with the listener. In other words, these words display the initiative of the speaker to get in touch with the listener, whether that may be to bring up a familiar topic, introduce an unfamiliar one, or to provide clarification. 


As seen in the examples above, filler words and phrases have an indispensable role in our formal and informal speech. When used appropriately, these words can embellish our message to reveal our perspectives and emotions. However, when used only as a tool to fill our pauses, these words lose power and become mere silence fillers. 

If you find yourself misusing words and are seeking to embrace each word’s full value, you’re in luck. Speech-Language Pathologists provide presentation and communication coaching to all speakers interested in a communication tune-up. With deeper understanding of each word’s meaning and a greater control of your vocabulary, you will begin using words powerfully—just as they were intended.