Drop Those Crutches

Learn to let go of the ‘ahs,’ the ‘ums’ and other filler words

Ah-counting words dropping

By Joel Schwartzberg, CC, CL

A client I work with frequently is a very strong speaker—she’s confident, powerful and very aware of her message. Yet, even with all that ability, she makes one mistake consistently and is mostly unaware of it.

She begins nearly every sentence with the word “so.”

“So, I thought we’d start by … ”

“So, I’d like to thank … ”

“So, my answer to that is … ”

“So” is her “crutch word,” a term we Toastmasters are very familiar with. In every meeting, the Ah-Counter is tasked with identifying, and delivering a report on, “overused words or filler sounds used as a crutch by anyone who speaks during the meeting.”

These include words such as “and,” “well,” “but,” “so” and “you know,” but also mere sounds like “ah,” “um” and “er.” Sometimes they include words such as “literally,” “actually” and “basically.” Whatever form they take, crutch words typically have two attributes: 1) overuse, and 2) meaninglessness.

Crutch words are never necessary and may even get in the way of you making your point.

Why Do We Use Crutch Words?

Theories abound about why people use crutch words. In an article for The Atlantic, Jen Doll suggested we use them to “give us time to think, to accentuate our meaning (even when we do so mistakenly), or just because these are the words that have somehow lodged in our brains and come out on our tongues.”

In a widely-shared Harvard Business Review article, Noah Zandan suggests that filler words come in handy when a speaker is “nervous, distracted or at a loss for what comes next … These may give us a moment to collect our thoughts before we press on.”

I personally believe words such as “um” and “ah” emerge when our brain anticipates a void or an uncertain moment in our presentation and basically freaks out, quickly plugging the hole with a pointless sound.

It takes a lot of confidence to start a speech with a strong first word, so speakers sometimes start with “so” or “OK” as a way of easing into a talk, which may seem less intimidating.

In both cases—and regardless of the cause—the “fix” is unacceptable. Any part of your speech that doesn’t support your point will take away from it, even if in little pieces. And you always want to make sense, never nonsense.

How to Overcome Crutch Words

If you don’t have an Ah-Counter handy, many digital apps now exist to help you discover and count your crutch words (the LikeSo app is one example). But simply knowing and counting your crutches may not be enough. For many, using filler words is so routine and reflexive that asking them to stop saying “ah” or “um” by counting them is like asking someone to control his sneezing by having him count his sneezes.

The trick to controlling this habit is substituting another behavior in its place, or at least adopting tactics that reduce its frequency. In my experience, these four strategies can help.

1. Embrace the Pause

Most public-speaking experts agree that the best replacement for a crutch word is a deliberate pause. Whereas filler words create distraction, pauses have multiple benefits: They create suspense, slow down fast talkers, demonstrate confidence, draw audience attention and give speakers the time they need to communicate with precision.

Knowing these benefits, speakers should deliberately pause when they feel a crutch word coming on. It may feel awkward at first, but with practice, you will soon be pausing instead of using crutch words, and there’s no penalty for pausing. Audiences rarely say, “That was a good presentation, but she paused too much.” Like your sophomore year of high school, pauses are so uneventful that they are quickly forgotten.

2. Slow Down

Speakers often use filler words because their mouths are outpacing their minds. Words are coming out erratically and nonsensically before the brain has a chance to organize them into points. But when speakers slow down, they have much more time to plan out the precise phrases they want to use and will not need nonsensical fillers to connect random and pre-baked thoughts.

If you have trouble slowing down naturally, insert more deliberate pauses and raise your volume; both are countermeasures to fast talking. As a naturally fast talker myself, it’s useless to tell myself, Go slower! But raising my volume and adding more pauses are much more actionable and effective.

3. Know Your Point

When speakers don’t have clear points, they’re inclined to ramble. Crutch words are then generated to connect these rambling sentences and ideas (“and, um … so … ”). But if speakers prepare their points in advance and know them well, they’re able to start them efficiently and wrap up once they’ve successfully delivered them, making rambling and desperate connections less necessary. After all, if you start talking before you know what you want to say, you’re bound to say something pointless.

4. Practice

When you’re nervous and anxious, saying anything—even a crutch word—may feel more comfortable than saying nothing. Practicing mitigates that anxiety by making the speaker more familiar with the material. A comfortable and confident speaker has more control, enabling her to embrace pauses and deftly avoid the “ums” and “ahs.” Practice may not always make perfect, but it can give you the confidence to make good public-speaking decisions.

Crutch words are not an indication of your experience or ability. Some executives use crutch words all the time, while some interns never do. But if you know what your problem words are and learn to control them, you’ll be a clearer and more efficient point-maker, and that’s always a goal worth aiming for.

Are you looking for a way to keep track of ‘ahs’ and ‘ums’ at your next Toastmasters meeting? Learn about the Toastmasters mobile app for Ah-Counters in this video:

3 Ways to Make Ah-Counting Count For More

As vice president education for my club, I feel responsible for making sure the Ah-Counter’s report has meaning for members and creates more support than shame. To that end, we instituted three new Ah-Counter responsibilities:

1. The Ah-Counter says “five-plus” to indicate any speaker who uses a crutch word more than five times. This spares speakers the embarrassment of having their 16 “ums” and seven “you knows” broadcast to the world.

2. The Ah-Counter focuses on identifying each speaker’s crutch words. Knowing which filler word you rely on is much more valuable than knowing you’ve said it 13 times. It also makes the Ah-Counter’s presentation more instructive and engaging, and less like he’s announcing contest results.

3. The Ah-Counter always encourages speakers to substitute pauses for crutch words, and praises speakers who use pauses effectively for control.
Remember that the Ah-Counter is not just a counter, but a coach. Use these strategies to both support and elevate the speakers whose “ahs” you count, because they’re also counting on you.


Our Toastmaster of the Day, Ghislaine Demombynes, opened the meeting giving us a theme of appreciation.  We are busy with jobs, family, friends and as a result often don’t take time to fully appreciate all these pieces of our lives.


How delightful to welcome a new member and listen to his Icebreaker.  Andres del Corral is a native Floridian, growing up right here in Miami.  As a youngster, he enjoyed watching “20/20″ and thought about becoming a TV Journalist.  His first opportunity came at Gulliver Academy, but he was behind the camera.  Turns out Andres had a fear of public speaking (too bad there wasn’t a Toastmaster’s Club at school).  In college he studied TV production and upon graduation headed out to California to follow his dream.  While at Intermedia Productions, he worked on a film  called,”Fear Factor.”  He asked if we’d seen it and receiving no response said, “That’s OK, no one else did either.”  As often happens, reality can be sobering and Andres missed his tropical Miami.  Oddly his decision to return had a political twist.  He decided if Arnold became “governator,” he was leaving California.  Arnold won.  Andres returned, went back to college receiving his MBA.  Today he is working in Commercial Real Estate and loves it.


Dominique Stauffer recently returned to our Miracle Mile family.  Since we last saw Dominique, she became a member of Guardian ad Litem.  Members of “GAL” are volunteers appointed to represent the interests of minor children in court.  In the United States there are 600,000 children  in need of Court appointed special advocates.  There are 3,000 right here in Miami.  They range in age from babies to teens.  Volunteers facilitate for the well being of children by advocating for, and investigating on behalf of them.  In addition, GAL members go to the homes, speak with teachers, therapists and doctors.  Results show, with these efforts, children do better in school, often spend less time in foster care, and are not as frequently moved from one foster situation to another.  Dominique has found volunteering to be rewarding and the benefits to the children are immeasurable.


Mike Molina once again stepped up to be our Table Topics Master.  How would you have responded?

How is appreciation important to you?  What triggers you into a feeling of appreciation?  Thinking of the public services we receive, which group do you appreciate the most?  What do you appreciate most about your kids?  What is the greatest contribution Toastmasters has made in your life?  What do you think we have in life that we take for granted?  What would you like to be remembered for in the world?

Wow!  It was pretty tough for our contestants, but three people got the most votes.  In third place we had Sharon Patish, in second place we had Chris Nolte and our winner was Chris Wolfe who, as a result of Toastmasters, established “Voices Of Time,” and appreciates how fortunate he is.


Our Master Evaluator, Alex Moreira and his team Jody Johnson and Jim Hartnett left us all with some suggestions on how to improve our speaking skills:

1) Use pictures or other visual objects to draw attention to strong points in your speech.

2)  Watch what you do with your hands — you want movement but too much can be distracting.

3)  When possible, end your speech with a call to action.