Tips on Public Speaking: Eliminating the Dreaded "Um"

Steven D. Cohen is an award-winning speaker who teaches Oral Communication in the Workplace at Harvard Extension School. An expert on public speaking, Cohen researches and writes about the techniques that professional speakers use to design and deliver powerful messages. In this blog post, Cohen explores how filler words can make you, and even the most powerful speakers, look unprofessional.

It is difficult for me to watch political speeches. After all, I know that I am going to hear one alarming word over and over again. It’s not “debt,” “deficit,” or “downturn.” It’s “um.”

Filler words like “um” may seem natural in everyday speech, but they do not belong in formal presentations or speeches. Powerful public speakers work hard to eliminate words such as “um,” “uh,” “well,” “so,” “you know,” “er,” and “like” from their vocabulary so that their listeners can focus solely on their message. Through practice and persistence, you can too.

So, like, why am I saying “um”?

Steven Cohen in classWhy do we use filler words? The simplest answer is that we have been conditioned to answer questions immediately from an early age. When our mother or father asked us a question, we were sure to answer right away—either because we wanted to show respect or because we were afraid of what would happen if we didn’t answer. Consequently, we feel the urge to speak when spoken to.

Some people argue that filler words serve an important purpose such as making a speaker sound more “natural” or “real.” In fact, Michael Erard wrote a book on this very subject. But just because filler words are fairly common in everyday speech does not mean that they are useful. In fact, they often detract from the listener’s ability to understand a particular message.

There are two places where filler words commonly appear: at the beginning of a statement and in between ideas. See what happens the next time you answer a question. You might say “um” or “uh” right away without even thinking. Then when you are finished discussing your first idea, you may be tempted to use another filler word as you decide what to say next.

You can think of these two “filler word hot spots” in the context of a two paragraph essay. The first hot spot would be the tab before the first paragraph, and the second hot spot would be the white space between the first and second paragraphs.

When you use a filler word such as “um,” you are thinking verbally. In other words, you are verbalizing your thought process. Armed with this information, it is easy to realize that the best way to avoid using filler words is to pause. If you are not speaking, you can’t say “um”!

Removing “um” from your vocabulary

The next time you are asked a question, take a couple seconds to think about what you want to say. This pause serves two important purposes: it will help you begin powerfully, and it will help you avoid using a filler word. Pause, think, answer.

The same public speaking technique applies when you are transitioning from one idea to another. While you may be tempted to fill the silence between ideas with a filler word, remember to pause and give yourself a moment to think about what you want to say next. It is important that you don’t begin speaking until you are ready. Remember: Pause, think, answer.

It may feel unnatural to pause, especially since you have responded to questions right away for your entire life. I assure you that you will deliver more powerful responses and reduce your chance of using filler words if you give yourself time to think.

Can’t seem to shake the habit? Ask for help.

If you need help overcoming your “um” problem, consider asking a co-worker, family member, or friend to point out when you use filler words. You also could record an upcoming presentation and then watch yourself in action. You may be amazed at how often you say “um” or “uh”!

Although we live in a fast-paced society that seemingly demands instant answers, we must use the pause to our advantage. We may feel pressure to answer right away, but ultimately, we should only speak when we are ready.

Do you agree? I would like to hear what you think so leave a comment. But, please, don’t use any “ums.”

Need additional public speaking resources? Check these out:

Sharon Wingron replied:
I work as a learning and performance consultant with a primary focus on leadership development, team building, and training and coaching other learning professionals. The filler word I have noticed that seems to be the new rage is "right." People often interject this after every sentence or sentence fragment. It quickly becomes very distracting, right, and can also feel aggressive, right, as if the speaker if forcing their point of view on the audience. Right? Have you noticed this trend as well? I imagine it has the same roots as 'um,' 'so,' and the others, yet I wonder if it also has some other psychology behind its use. Would love to hear others' thoughts on this. Thank you!
Anonymous replied:
A set of transitional phrases learned instead of using 'Um' may be more pertinent than a pause-- using a pause with a vacant expression may look dumb. If when quizzed you are not sure about something it would be better to say something like: I take your point, I think this matter requires further investigation. If you do wish to use the power of silence, do so like a Shakespearean actor would-- it is an amazing tool for dramatic emphasis if combined with the correct facial expression. I think it is best to have an agenda and a style. The style you use is best done with the following qualities: cohesiveness, coherence, clarity, emphasis and rhythm. If you would like to emphasize something, a tricolon or a set of nested up lifting appositives may help to create an emphatic crescendo. I think great orators know how to impress their audience with it's wishes using some form of crescendo-- it is similar to a belting it in a power ballad song.
Charlot Mobley replied:

I was listening to an internet program and  3 out of the 7 speakers used the word um a whole lot. I had to stop listening even though I was interested in what they where speaking about. So I googled why do people use um when speaking and click on your answer. I understand and truly get what one of the cause is, thanks for helping me to understand it. I am in sale and customer service so I have been trained to keep the um's out because we have to listen to our calls for QA. Once you hear a 5 minute call filled with um's it makes you aware of how much the um’s take away from the information being given out.

Anonymous replied:

I explain 'um' with our inability to allow someone to interrupt us.  By utilizing the um in between thoughts, it does not allow someone to interject.  

Great article.  

Jennifer Furlong replied:
Um. Uh. Like. You know. Okay. And. When I talk to my students about vocal fillers I tell them that one or two ums in a presentation isn't the end of the world; however, if it gets to the point that they use them every time before beginning the intro or between every main idea and most sentences, that just highlights how unprepared they are for the presentation. Practicing is the key in that situation. But what about in impromptu situations? I give them the exact same advice you gave in this article. Pause. Think. Answer. Too many vocal fillers gives the perception that the speaker is reaching for an answer and undermines credibility and competence.
Amy replied:

Though not an issue when you're giving a speech in front of an audience, when speaking in a group setting (think work meeting) there is often a level of "competition" for the chance to talk. A pause when speaking often gives someone else the opportunity to pounce and take over the role of speaker. A filler word signals others that you're not yet done talking.

Anonymous replied:
The notion that you see a meeting situation as a competition or an opportunity for you to speak and not allow others the same privilege suggests a lack of respect for others, and an assumption that their thoughts are not as valuable as yours in the topic of discussion. Using "um" or not in conversation does not change your lack of willingness to let others and their thoughts be valued and given mutual respect. If you know your content and what you need to communicate, you'll find that filler words just waste time, and you won't rely on them. If you don't know your content, you'll be using "um" to buy time to assemble your thoughts in real-time; not as a mechanism to keep others quiet while you babble on.
Anonymous replied:
Good point, don't give the crafty one's a chance to derail you.
Anonymous replied:

When I was growing up, my best friend Amy used the filler "um-ma" quite frequently. Annoyed, her mom enlisted my friend's entire family in softly saying "ding" every time Amy said "um-ma" to make Amy aware of when she said it. Needless to say, it only took a couple of days for Amy to expunge "um-ma" from her vocabulary!

Cris Parker Marvin replied:

I agree with "um" and "uh" as fillers, but would like to offer up another filler. It appears when speakers are asked to answer a question, they often use "that's a good question" as a filler--while they think and decide on what and how to respond. I was taught that no question asked in the interest of learning information is ever a "bad" question, so why would any of the "talking-heads" ever have to qualify the question before their answer unless filling time while searching for an appropriate response.

Lynne Elizabeth Peterson replied:

Insightful. I will try it the next time I get asked a question! The use of "so..." in Minnesota is a transitional phrase that reemphasizes what one has just said. It is so annoying and I do it all the time! I believe that it comes from our Scandinavian heritage as I hear it linger after phrases in that language as well. Anyway, it is a bad habit. I'll see if the awareness of "um" helps me with Thanks. Tusen Tak.

Michael Erard replied:

I appreciate being mentioned in this blog post. You say, "But just because filler words are fairly common in everyday speech does not mean that they are useful. In fact, they often detract from the listener’s ability to understand a particular message." Readers might find the chapter in my book on the history of umlessness clarifying on this: the detraction that you are referring to is less a matter of psycholinguistic reality than historically-based performance requirements of certain communication genres. And I would pose this question: why would something be so common in speech if it were not useful?

Randle replied:

"why would something be so common in speech if it were not useful?"

Just because something is common, does not make it the most useful thing to serve the purpose. In a speech the sound of "Ahh"can often sound better in terms of performance than "uMM". It would be even better to reitterate if you have to say something. Both types of fillers serve the purpose of distracting the listener so they cannot interupt or even take the pause to process what you are saying. It almost undermines the listeners responsibility to do just that - listen. It may even promote a model of communication that is propositional rather than interactive. The opportunity cost of not filling the silence needs to be evaluated. If you don't see the cost, then go ahead and use it. I see it as annoyingly costly on the effectiveness of my communication and that's why I'm reading this blog.

Great post - thanks!!