Saying ‘Um’ And Other Speaker Slip-Ups

14 September, 2016


“So, it was like, um, a bit of, uh… you know? And, well, it just got, too…, um, … ja.” At which point I noticed the uneasy shuffling. People politely averted their eyes from my burning cheeks to focus on the flipchart at the front. Except for Sven. Sven just kept staring.

Turns out that when you’re under pressure, the area of the brain associated with concentration and interacting with others, goes dim. This supports the folk wisdom that ums, uhs and other fillers, betray a speaker* as weak, ignorant and sloppy.

* in this instance I’m defining speaker as someone engaged in casual conversation, a meeting, or a presentation. Or in my case, struggling to answer a tough question.

Which is probably why Toastmasters uses the rather punitive tactic of allocating a designated Um Counter (a real person with a sharp pencil, a clipboard, and an imagined raised eyebrow) to tally up your disfluencies *isn’t that a cool word?* and report back to the group.

To clarify, using filler words has nothing to do with your intelligence or the rightness of your opinion (see, Sven?) but rightly or wrongly, it influences whether your good ideas get heard or respected.

Random fact: men tend to use uh and women um. Psychologists don’t really know why women favour the latter, but my guess is that um feels more polite. And it looks nicer than leaving your jaw all slack and open.

How to get rid of um

There’s good news. It’s possible to train yourself out of filler words, even when put on the spot.

Here’s how:

  1. Record yourself having a conversation. As cringeworthy as it may be, you’ll have a good idea of what you need to tackle.
  2. Make eye-contact. It becomes much more awkward to say um when looking someone fully in the eye. Try it.
  3. Prepare more. You’ll probably see a correlation between the number of ums and your (lack of) planning.
  4. Get into presenter mode. The subtle mental shift from listener to presenter will curb your use of filler words.
  5. Ask a question. This gives you time to come up with a better answer.
  6. Don’t put your hands in your pockets. Really. When your arms and hands are constrained, your filler words go up.

What not to do

Every book you read tells you to replace your ums with a pause. This makes sense. A silent pause is gracious, while an um sounds uncertain. But actually this isn’t true. According to research, a silent pause just makes you sound anxious.

How you speak is a huge component of your personal brand and the impression you make on others.

Have you overcome the use of filler words? What did you do? If you were in my position, what would you have said to Sven?

Robyn Young - Personal Leadership Branding for Executives

About the Author

Robyn Young

As a personal leadership branding strategist, Robyn Young helps individuals identify and articulate their unique strengths, values and goals, empowering them to build an authentic personal brand that resonates with their stakeholders.

Robyn has a keen eye for aligning personal attributes with professional aspirations, helping her clients project a powerful and compelling image in their chosen field.