The most dreaded word

1) You’re in the middle of a presentation when, suddenly, you can’t think of a certain word, or you lose your train of thought. You feel like you’ve misplaced the entire railroad.

Perfectly natural, happens to everyone.

So you reach for a filler word, such as “um.”

2) Nothing wrong with an occasional um. No one will notice unless, for some reason, they’re counting every um you utter which, I admit, is an intriguing hobby.

But it doesn’t need to be yours.

3) Getting to zero ums should not be your life’s work. Actually, if you never say um, you’ll sound scripted and robotic. The goal: keep your ums under the radar. A few ums will go undetected.

4) There are worse filler words. For example: “like,” or “you know.” Worse because they get noticed faster.


5) Consider “like.”

Good use: “This tastes like potato salad.”

Personally, I’d like to know if this really is potato salad, because maybe it started out as something entirely different, such as apple strudel, and then took a bad turn.

But from a usage perspective, we’re fine.

Bad use: “I told my girlfriend that I like really loved her, and she’s like, ‘I like you too,’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t want to be liked. In fact, I really dislike that.'” (“Like” appears five times; only two are correct.)

6) You know.

Good use: Let’s say you’re at a party, and your host says, “You know Dorothy, don’t you? Dorothy makes that wonderful potato salad,” and you say, “Of course I know Dorothy!” while thinking, Dorothy? Who’s Dorothy???


Bad use: “It’s, you know, embarrassing when you can’t remember someone, you know?”

Both “you knows” are unnecessary. If we say, “It’s embarrassing when you can’t remember someone you know” (without the comma), that’s better. We’re obviously talking about Dorothy.

7) There are better words than um.
Try these filler words instead: well; now; so; and.

For example: “Um, you must be Dorothy” becomes, “Well, you must be Dorothy.”

8) You can overuse any word.

Sometimes, I overuse “so.” So do others. “So,” reports The New York Times, is the new sentence opener (“Follow my logic? A connective word takes the lead,” 5/30/10).


But just because everyone says so, doesn’t make it ok. In other words, “So what?”

9) Eventually, you may want to go beyond filler words.
The simplest solution when unsure what to say next: pause.

10) Pausing marks you as a calm professional. Even if it feels strange, like you just ate some dubious potato salad.

© Copyright 2015 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

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