Waylaid by lingual leeches? Try this.

Ah is a versatile word. It can express surprise, pleasure, sympathy, understanding. Uttered over a tongue depressor, it helps the doctor inspect your tonsils. It even reports for musical duty in song lyrics. (Remember the opening bars of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song?)

Aside from such usages, ah tends to be a nuisance in speech. So do its cousins uh, er, and um. All are infamous for piping up willy-nilly. One is usually followed by another, and another, like popcorn. They can become so automatic that a speaker is oblivious to them.

Oblivion comes with a cost, however. Filler words muddy ideas and impede comprehension. They are verbal leeches, sucking vitality from the message. How can you keep these leeches at bay?

The first, crucial step is awareness. In a Toastmasters club, for example, one member at each meeting serves as ah counter.  If a speaker requests, the ah counter taps a bell to provide immediate feedback. A report at the close of the meeting details the breaches.

If you don’t have a terrier-eared Toastmaster on hand, enlist the aid of a sympathetic associate. Even better, make an audio recording of your presentation. Should you hear filler words, take heart. Even the most prolific abusers, when faced with the evidence, soon muster the will to shake the habit. Here are three insights that can help.

Transcribe the audio of your presentation and read it aloud. Seeing your verbal flotsam on the page—coupled with the awkwardness of having to say it again—may trigger an epiphany, especially if you strive for clarity and economy in writing.

Associate ah with a disagreeable sound. When you hear yourself using a filler word, think of it as an unmufflered motorcycle, a screaming baby, or fingernails on a chalkboard. You just injected this noise into your speech, and your audience pretended not to notice.

Value the pause.  A moment of silence is one of the most powerful techniques in your vocal toolkit. Don’t be afraid to use it. A pause gives audience members a chance to think about what they just heard. It gives you a moment to prepare your next thought for succinct articulation.

In speech, as in writing, every word should serve a purpose. Shut out the useless intruders, and you open the door to greater persuasive power. With the satisfaction you feel, you may even let loose an ah that is the envy of Robert Plant.