As I mentioned in an earlier post, filler words like Ah, Um, or Uh also are known as filled pauses, and that term implies you just should replace them with empty pauses. They also have been derisively referred to as: crutch words, clutch words, wasted words, vocal hiccups, and even vampire words.
A couple years ago Clara Moskowitz discussed other viewpoints from psychologists and linguists about filler words in an article on Well, You Know, It’s How We Talk. A filler word also may be known as a discourse marker, a discourse particle, or a linguistic marker. So, just as was said 25 years ago about software, "It's not a bug; it's an undocumented feature!"
In a March 27, 2009 blog post a public speaking coach, Steve Arrowood, even said that filler words are OK! He referred to a discussion of the linguistic use of fillers presented in a 2004 paper in the National Forensic Association (NFA) Journal. That paper by Stephen M. Croucher was titled Like, You Know What I’m Saying: A Study of Discourse Marker Frequency in Extemporaneous and Impromptu Speaking.
I was fascinated to find that Croucher had measured how frequently college students used Um, Uh, Like, and You Know during both impromptu and extemporaneous speeches. Those NFA events have a maximum time of 7 minutes, just like some Toastmasters speeches. Croucher’s results are shown in the following bar chart:
Croucher found that college men and women used about the same numbers of Uhs and Ums. However, women used both Like and You Know a LOT more than the men. He suggested this was due to a cultural influence from Southern California as humorously portrayed by Frank Zappa in the song, Valley Girl.
I like the phrase “clutch words” because it suggests an analogy between public speaking and learning to drive a car or truck with a manual transmission (or stick shift). In speaking you need to learn to smoothly shift from one idea to the next. In driving you need to learn to use your right hand on the shift lever in perfect coordination with your left foot on the clutch pedal (while also checking the speedometer or tachometer).
When you begin to learn to drive your shifts are made quite consciously and are not smooth at all. I learned to drive a stick shift in the hills of Pittsburgh. My early attempts at starting out uphill often led to either wheel-spinning or stalling-out, and amused my neighbors. However, with continued practice the processes involved in shifting got smooth and became almost unconscious.
For most people the process of speaking also gets smoother with practice. A minority still may be plagued by a problem known as cluttering (that is distinct from stuttering).