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.”


Comments (25)


Mike 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 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

Dottie Howe 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 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

Insurancewhisper.com replied:

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July 7, 20155:24pm

Theo Hainer 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 replied:

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

July 16, 20155:13am

sethu replied:

Good Article. Helped me a lot

July 16, 20155:14am

Lollita Stewart 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 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 replied:

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

July 20, 20156:33am

Jessie Johnson 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 replied:

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

August 12, 20153:32am

tumukunde christine 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 wrong.so thank you for offering to teach us. keep it up

August 13, 20157:33am

Mubarak Gidado Umar 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 replied:

very insightful and helpful

November 11, 20158:55pm

Jason replied:

Great read...ummmmm

November 24, 201511:16am

Cookie 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

Anonymous 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 replied:

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

January 8, 201612:33am

Varad replied:

Thanks for great tip.

December 28, 20157:46am

Betsy 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

Roslyn replied:

Great advice

January 6, 20164:27pm


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