How to Stop the ‘Ums’ and ‘Uhs’

Um, uh

We’ve all been there. In ameeting someone asks you an unexpected question that you don’t immediately know how to answer. As your mind searches for something to say, your mouth begins to speak.

If you were to listen to a recording of your response, it would likely include a few “ums” and “uhs” as you pieced together a response.

Or maybe you’ve been on the receiving end, listening to someone give a presentation that is littered with “ums” and “uhs.”

These are known as filler words. These are the occasional hiccups in language we find in everyday conversation. They happen because, linguists tell us, people speak 120 to 150 words per minute — or two to 2 1/2 words per second — in normal speech.

With that speed, it’s normal to have glitches in our sentences. Studies find that 6 to 10 percent of spontaneous speech has some kind of garble, including filler words.

In fact, this is a common phenomenon around the world. Researchers find all languages have their own versions of “um” and “uh.” If you’d like to add a foreign flair to your next stammer, consider Spanish “eh” and “pues,” French “eu” and “em,” or even Japanese “etto” and “ano,” to name a few. ;-)

Whether you have occasionally dipped your toe in the filler-word pool, or are completely submerged, and don’t even realize you’re wet, it’s in your interest to prevent these phrases from permeating your language.

That’s because the overuse of “ums” and “uhs” may have negative effects on your communication, including:

Giving the perception that you are uncertain and lacking in confidence, thus reducing your credibility.

Distracting people from your message. They often end up counting the filler words or being so annoyed they tune you out.

Making you seem to have a limited vocabulary, like you don’t have the words to express what you want to say.

So, how do you learn to control these filler phrases?

It starts with developing awareness. Many people don’t realize that they rely on these filler words.

Others know they’ve adopted filler words but don’t realize how often they are saying them. You know these people. They use “like” and “right” and think they are using them sparingly, but in fact are literally (another of those words) using them like.every.like.other.like.word.

To bring this to people’s consciousness, some speech coaches will drop pennies in a metal can, hit a spoon on a glass, or use a clicker like those used in dog training. These noises are meant to bring awareness to the person while they are speaking.

In very severe cases, I may briefly employ this method. But in general I find this negative reinforcement doesn’t correct the problem and undermines confidence for the speaker.

For more long-term success, I prefer a method I’ve used for years that is also employed in Toastmasters Clubs. Rather than constantly interrupting the speaker, someone simply counts and reports the number of filler words used.

This should be accompanied by a video or audio recording, so the person can hear when and how often filler words surfaced. It can come as a shock.

Working with the president of a large, well-known company, I once sat in the audience as he spoke for 20 minutes, without slides, to employees. I counted 46 times that he asked, “right?” He did not recall one of them!

Once you’re aware of the problem, here are some solutions:

Slow down.

Learn to become comfortable with a moment of silence. We often use filler words as a crutch to avoid silence. When you’re under pressure a pause can feel like an eternity, but it’s not. A pause after a point gets the attention of your audience and allows them to take in what you said. It also lets themto catch up with you and take a breath to get ready for your next idea.

Think before you speak.

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