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.

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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Mike (not verified) replied:

I found this article very informative, and I believe can use it to my advantage. I'm currently interviewing for another job, and noticed in my last interview how many times I seemed to be saying "ah" or "um". I believe the deposit bank and then answer strategy will help you tremendously. Thank you for your article.

June 22, 201510:21pm

Joe (not verified) replied:

This article is quite timely as it seems filler words are multiplying at an exaggerated rate. I sent my ten year old to public school for the first time. I had been homeschooling him since birth. A well spoken kid came home misusing "like" and "literally" so much that it seemed as if he had a verbal tic. Though I corrected, I did not judge. I am a reformed "um" user. It was my older son who alerted me to my verbal tic some years prior. During a phone conversation in the car, he and my middle son were in thee back seat playfully slapping themselves and laughing throughout my entire conversation. Afterwards I asked, what the heck they were doing to which they giggled out their response. Every time I said "um" they slap themselves to be funny. It broke me of the habit. Though I don't judge, I am a bit fed up with these verbal fillers being used by kids with no correction from teachers or parents. Now it has creeped into adult's way of speaking which has lead to a rise in the misuse of the word "literally." I have taken it upon myself to politely steer people in the right direction. I was glad my kids corrected me. #NoFillerNeeded

June 23, 20157:46am

Ed (not verified) replied:

Let's add "actually" and "really" to the list of unneeded words.

August 16, 20161:15pm

Dottie Howe (not verified) replied:

I just edited a video recording of an online webinar. We are all guilty of using, "um," "and," "uh," and "and um." Including me! And I'm the Communications Director. I also notice, "So." Do you think if I asked us all to write something on paper, like an X or something, when we want to use the word "um" that this would help. I'd like to train all of us to stop this. It's okay during conversation because we don't notice it, but when you record something, it's just awful!

June 26, 20157:34pm

Robert DB (not verified) replied:

Yes I agree, the beat way to avoid the filler words such as UMS or UHS is to pause and reflect for a moment. Also, if you are asked a question, and need time to think, repeat the question . This will give you time to think of an answer

July 4, 20155:13pm (not verified) replied:

Hmm is anyone else having problems with the pictures on this blog loading? I'm trying to find out if its a problem on my end or if it's the blog. Any responses would be greatly appreciated.

July 7, 20155:24pm

Theo Hainer (not verified) replied:

I really like how you write. You have a winning informational article here. I'm hoping you will add more articles on this subject so I can keep up with you.

July 8, 201512:06am

Anonymous (not verified) replied:

Good article.Let me keep in my mind to work it out..

July 16, 20155:13am

sethu (not verified) replied:

Good Article. Helped me a lot

July 16, 20155:14am

Lollita Stewart (not verified) replied:

I think that what you have said is 'right on'. I can't stand listening to a speaker, of any calibre who needs to rely on what I call 'word whiskers'. Thank you for your article

July 18, 20153:29am

Karen (not verified) replied:

These filler words drive me over the edge. I used to enjoy podcasts but find that most are so riddled with filler words that they are 3 times longer than necessary and sometimes impossible to comprehend.

July 20, 20151:50am

radhika (not verified) replied:

I think you are correct. the other side is that these word seem like patch work.

July 20, 20156:33am

Jessie Johnson (not verified) replied:

I think that your suggestions are spot on in addressing the dreadful "um" issue. I have a really difficult time with this, but I am determined to weed it out of my vocabulary. Thank you so much for your suggestion: pause, think, answer.

July 24, 20155:39pm

craftycreations21 (not verified) replied:

this really helped me . it made me understand more. thanks :)

August 12, 20153:32am

tumukunde christine (not verified) replied:

so wow, i have liked the lesson, Actually, in our club(Rwanda Toastmaster club), there is a session of teaching us to not use the filler words. and i often wonder why avoiding filler words yet i always listen to many people using them?, and even the White people use them yet they know English/French very well? For me i have guessed that using the filler words is the matter of little language but i have realized that i was thank you for offering to teach us. keep it up

August 13, 20157:33am

Mubarak Gidado Umar (not verified) replied:

Well, I find that this idea is something to be consider in a daily life conversation or academic conversations in these days. I really like to use this method and explore over it to find out. Thanks, kind regards.

August 18, 20153:47pm

Kambre Williams (not verified) replied:

very insightful and helpful

November 11, 20158:55pm

Jason (not verified) replied:

Great read...ummmmm

November 24, 201511:16am

Cookie (not verified) replied:

I agree that there shouldn't be any filter words in presentations or speeches, but I do think that filter words have a meaning in normal conversations. It's too odd in a middle of a conversation to just sit there and think. No one does that any more...

December 4, 20157:17am

Js (not verified) replied:

Agreed. While I too am trying to eliminate filler words from my vocabulary, if I pause midsentence to think of what I want to say next, I find that many people will assume I'm done talking and will begin to speak, thereby interrupting the completion of my thought.

June 14, 20162:47am

Anonymous (not verified) replied:

This article is very helpful, i am 12 and have a presentation that i have to present to the board of education of our district and i always use filler words

December 6, 20158:24pm

anonym (not verified) replied:

That's great! I'm sure you'll do very well! Good luck!

January 8, 201612:33am

Varad (not verified) replied:

Thanks for great tip.

December 28, 20157:46am

Betsy (not verified) replied:

Wish I'd had the tip before I gave a radio interview on December 11th. I was mortified when I listened to the replay broadcast. I had no idea I was even doing it....saying "um" repeatedly. I knew my content/research well and even had notes for reference. Needless to say, I don't point too many colleagues to the interview since I was too embarassed with my performance.

January 5, 20163:44pm

Carol (not verified) replied:

But interviews are especially hard! It's not like you're reading from a prepared speech. You're on the spot, trying to think fast to answer the questions even if you've done your homework. I also was recently interviewed and someone commented later that they were distracted by my "ums." I was so embarrassed. But when I replayed the interview, I noticed that the professional TV interviewer also said "um" many times. Quite honestly, I had watched the interview twice before reading that person's criticism, and I thought I sounded fine. I had to agree after it was pointed out to me that I do need to work on saying "um" less often, but normal speech is not perfect and robotic. Being interviewed IS more like conversation. It's not like giving a prepared speech. If professional interviews can't eliminate "um" completely, I don't see any hope (or reason) for me to do so!

August 11, 201611:48am

Roslyn (not verified) replied:

Great advice

January 6, 20164:27pm

Valerie (not verified) replied:

The use of "ums' in a presentation is so very distracting. I cannot focus on the content because all I hear is "ums". I wish that webinar recordings could be edited to remove all of these words because they can ruin an otherwise excellent presentation.

January 18, 201611:04am

Sick dog (not verified) replied:

Very very good information

February 10, 20168:31pm

George, Abiodun... (not verified) replied:

Quite informative!Will like to know more of 'eliminating the dreaded other clichés

March 9, 20165:23am

Mushal (not verified) replied:

Great article, thanks for the tip.

April 6, 20164:13am

anonnymouse (not verified) replied:

this helped me a lot

April 8, 20167:47pm

Damian Watts (not verified) replied:

Glad I ran into this article. Hopefully can put this into play. Many thanks

April 16, 20166:01am

SpeakingOut Aus... (not verified) replied:

So very true. Thanks for the advice. Fillers like em are totally a turn off while speaking especially when claiming to a powerful, expert "sure" of a concept. Cheers.

April 18, 20163:36am

bikerjon (not verified) replied:

Good article. I first learned about dysfluency in my high school Toastmaster club. The best 'um' example I've seen was in a Carol Burnett show, where she was taking a couple of questions from a young girl in the audience. The young lady's question was so liberally peppered with 'ums', that Carol interrupted with an offer of $100 if the girl could say her next sentence without an 'um'. After a considerable pause, the girl uttered, 'Uuuuumm...' Great hilarity ensued, and Carol nearly fell over laughing.

April 18, 20163:42pm

Adithya (not verified) replied:

Um.. It's uh a really great article :p

May 20, 201611:29am

anonymous (not verified) replied:

I've noticed on the news and weather a consistent overuse of words, when fewer would suffice. Examples are "roadways," "the overnight hours," and ending sentences with a drawn out "as welllllll."

July 13, 20162:37pm

Justin (not verified) replied:

Great article! I recorded myself the other night, and couldn't believe how many times I used filler words.

July 15, 20165:44pm

Fran (not verified) replied:

I will remember, "speak when ready".

July 17, 20165:34pm

Skyler (not verified) replied:

Great article... I've been trying to stop my use of the word "um" for a while now. After I read this article I had to read some other posts about how to stop it!!

July 18, 20164:18pm

James (not verified) replied:

Um, A , eye movement , leg movement and covering the mouth with a hand subconsciously hiding the lie. There are many indicators which reveal an individual who is in fact lying.

July 25, 20166:12pm

Addy (not verified) replied:


September 6, 201610:41pm

Farzaneh (not verified) replied:

Many thanks.this is a great information:)

October 9, 20165:37am

Kim (not verified) replied:

Your message is great. My husband says um after every pause. My skin crawls, it drives me crazy. I have tried to remind him when he says um, and he gets frustrated like I'm picking on him.

October 29, 20161:26pm

saidu (not verified) replied:

Wow! The article seems to be very interesting and at the same time it is convincingly useful, this gave me the reason behind the unwanted sounds, and helps me to improve myself for avoiding the mistakes in future.

November 10, 20168:43pm

Dat Boi (not verified) replied:

Um uh it was a umm uhm great, like, article and so I rate a uhmm ten/ten mate. It was great, um, so yeah, like literally a lot

November 18, 20165:51pm

JoshDD (not verified) replied:

Um.. Thanks.

December 28, 20161:51am

Louie van Almen (not verified) replied:

I used to use filler words a lot when I was younger, however it truly iritates me when listening to a speaker or a friend who use filler words such as um, uh, like, and also you know your article will help me when I do a speech on filler words. Thank you.

December 30, 20168:18pm

Veronica (not verified) replied:

I like this article. I just hung up on a business call in which the presenter said "you know" 16 times in 28 minutes. It was very distracting especially since I am new to the project team and didn't already "know". It also made this expert seem unsure of herself

January 4, 201712:42pm

Niall (not verified) replied:

I find these filler words drive me to edge, public speakers especially american politicians are some of the worst offenders.Recently while listening to the Radio this guy was a real expert .He was asked a question and answered "Well ahm I ahah would ah not ah....ah see the ah..ah..ah point..ah.I find this infuriating and after 5 minutes I switched off .A pity cuz the subject matter was really interesting .

January 11, 201710:11am

BRO (not verified) replied:

Good article and a good reminder. Thank you and I agree, you write very well, simple and to the point! Your article will always be timely, it is good for public speaking as well as in meetings and other professional encounters, such as as pointed out here, in a job interview. Fillers would more likely than not make us sound like we don't know what we are talking about. We actually do, it's mostly out of habit. One way to do this too, with the help of family members is to ask them to clap or raise their hand when they hear you say UHM or any filler word. Thanks again!

January 13, 20171:23pm


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