Tips on Public Speaking: Eliminating the Dreaded "Um"

Steven D. Cohen is a leading expert on persuasive communication and effective presentation skills. He is an instructor at the Harvard Division of Continuing Education and holds a faculty appointment at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business 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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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

rene roy (not verified) replied:

Crutch words easily stick because we often have a tendency to mirror bad habits of others. As an example, I very seldom used the word "you know" until my significate other started using it. I know from experience that we also have a tendency to mimic the dialect others. As example, while vacationing in the United Kingdom many years’ back I started to pick up a little bit of the British accent. Now, getting back to the pause, it’s like a breather to the audience for it allows the listener a chance to synchronize with the words of the speaker.

February 5, 20173:58pm

Vladislav (not verified) replied:

Uuummm, i think it's a great presentation !

October 26, 20176:30pm

Cat Smith (not verified) replied:

I do it on the radio! I've heard my recordings and need to stop "um" and "so." Post it notes will now don my mixing board with an anti-symbol around those fillers, but for now, thank you for the "Pause, Think, Answer" mantra. I plan to use it!

November 3, 20173:19pm

James Hobbs (not verified) replied:

not substantiated by any studies, whereas the contrary, using "uh", has repeatedly been proven by listeners' scoring speakers as more engaging, knowledgeable, and intelligent. When the same text provided by the same actor was heard by the listener sans "uhs", they scored less interesting, often citing difficulty in following the speaker. The reason is "uh" not only verbally express the speaker's thought in framing their words, it also cues the listener to pay attention, "Uh, this is pretty important" is more impactful than "This is pretty important".

November 5, 201712:03pm

Ron (not verified) replied:

You are too kind in euphemistically calling these utterances "fill words". The "words" uh, um, and ya' know are not words, they are grunts. When people babble like that they are grunting like stupid animals. Sometimes I feel that it is a shortcoming on my part, not to be able to filter this grunting out while listening to someone who is trying to speak, but could you imagine reading a book or an essay with the same useless iterations filling every sentence? Such writing would be thrown in the trash.

November 11, 20171:10am

Linda (not verified) replied:

Great article. I have a friend that says, "You know what I mean" every few seconds.

November 30, 20176:18pm

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