Tips on Public Speaking: Eliminating the Dreaded "Um"

Steven D. Cohen is an award-winning speaker who leads career and academic workshops on public speaking at Harvard Extension School. Through the Harvard Professional Development Programs, he teaches the programs Communicating with Influence: The Art of Persuasion and Delivering Effective Presentations

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”?

Why 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.”

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