Becoming Well-Spoken: How to Minimize Your Uh’s and Um’s

by Brett & Kate McKay on June 14, 2012 · 87 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development

In the pursuit of becoming a better man, becoming well-spoken is a task that should not be overlooked. How you speak is a huge component of the impression you make on others, and thus your potential influence on them. People will form judgments about your education, intelligence, background, and personality simply based on the sound of your voice and the language you use to express yourself.

Being well-spoken encompasses a lot of traits:

  • Creating well-formed sentences
  • Being articulate
  • Having a large and diverse vocabulary
  • Speaking clearly (not mumbling)
  • Having a good pace, tone, and intonation (not too loud, fast, or monotone)
  • Being fluent – words come easily to you
  • Being able to explain things easily
  • Being straightforward and meaning what you say
  • Being thoughtful and courteous to the needs of the listener
  • Using little filler and empty language

We hope to cover all of these traits eventually, but today we’re going to concentrate on the last item on the list: removing the filler — particularly the um’s and uh’s — from your speech.


What is filler? Filler consists of empty, extraneous language that pads your sentences without adding any additional meaning. It’s like empty calories – it’s there, but it doesn’t nourish. Examples of fillers include words and phrases such as “I mean,” “sort of,” “ya know?” “well,” and of course, “like.”

But the most famous fillers of all — the type that comes in for the most attention and disdain – are “uh” and “um.” To many, um’s and uh’s are tantamount to “verbal viruses” that clog up the language of the uncivilized and uneducated. Many public speaking experts recommend attempting to scrub your speech clean of this pesky padding.

The truth is that almost everyone uses these “filled pauses” in their speech; if you don’t think you do, it’s because speakers (and listeners in many cases as well), are very bad at hearing them. But if you were recorded throughout the day, you’d notice how much you sprinkle um’s and uh’s into your conversations. They are a very natural part of human speech and have likely been around since the beginning (although they vary according to language – such as “eh” in Spanish). In friendly conversation, as long as your fillers aren’t excessive or clustered together, people tend to filter them out and hardly notice them, if at all. Also, contrary to popular belief, fillers do not impede the listener’s comprehension; in fact, they can aid comprehension, signaling to the listener that you misspoke and are about to edit something you just said or to pay attention to what you say next.

This is not to say that you can’t control your um’s and uh’s or should use them indiscriminately. Rather, that the issue is simply not an all or nothing affair. The appropriateness of um’s and uh’s varies on a sliding scale, depending on your audience and your purpose. Researchers have found that a listener’s sensitivity to a speaker’s um’s and uh’s depends on the speaker’s social role. People expect those who are giving prepared remarks, on television, or in a position of authority to use little if any filler. For example, you would quickly notice if the play-by-play announcer for a basketball game said “um” before each sentence. “Um, Harden gets the ball. Um, he shoots and scores another three pointer. Um, his beard is awesome.” (Go Thunder!) This is also why President Obama gets lampooned on late night shows for his tendency to pepper his extemporaneous remarks with a bunch of uhhh’s and ummm’s.

Using uh and um too often takes away from the forcefulness and eloquence of your remarks. So while it’s not as big of a deal when used in conversations with friends, when meeting people for the first time and during job interviews, business presentations, formal speeches, and the like, you want to minimize your use of fillers as much as possible. If curbing your ummm-ing is something you struggle with, read on to learn why we all “um” and “uh” and what we can do to curb this tendency and become better spoken gentlemen.

Why Do We Say Um?

While it is popularly believed that um’s and uh’s arise because of anxiety, studies have not found a strict correlation between this type of filler and that emotional state (other “disfluencies,” however, like repeated words, the repeating of a single syllable or sound, omitting a word or part of a word, or a slip of the tongue are correlated with a speaker’s anxiety-level). For example, you are not more likely to use fillers when talking to a stranger than you are when talking to your spouse.

The reasons behind our uh’s and um’s are in fact a lot more nuanced (not to mention interesting). Here are some of the research-based theories that have been advanced:

Um’s and uh’s indicate that the speaker is “in trouble.” The primary view on the purpose of filler is that it is either an involuntary symptom or a purposeful signal (here linguists do not agree) that the speaker gives to indicate to his listeners that he is “in trouble” – he needs a moment to plan what to say next or to hunt for something in his memory. It tells the audience that there is about to be a delay. “Uh’s” signal a shorter delay, while “um’s” tell the audience the delay will be longer.

Basically, um’s and uh’s happen when you’re trying to think and speak at the same time. This is why they occur more frequently during transitions to a new topic or at the beginning of a sentence rather than at the end or in the middle of one; your brain is idling at the juncture between planning and executing what to say next.

Um’s and uh’s act as placeholders to let people know you’re going to continue speaking. When you can’t think of what to say next, you’re in a bit of a pickle; you need a moment to think about it, but social mores dictate that a pause can make you seem lost, or, provide a opportunity for someone else to jump in and start talking. So you may say “um” to tell your listeners: “I’m still in control – don’t interrupt me.”

This is one theory as to why men use more fillers like um and uh than women do: they are more assertive about holding the floor.

Uh’s can be a cry for help. Um’s and uh’s are not identical. In addition to the former signaling a longer delay in a person’s speech, uh’s are used more often to solicit help from others. They let listeners know they can jump in and provide the answer.

Harry: Jack was supposed to email, uh, uh…

Mike: Steven. He was supposed to email Steven.

Harry: Thanks

Um’s and uh’s indicate that we’re not as confident about what we’re about to say. When asked a question, people use more filler before responding when they’re less sure they have the right answer (and are in fact more likely to get the answer wrong). Conversely, people use less filler before giving an answer they’re sure is right (and one that is indeed more likely to be correct).

People also use more fillers before a non-answer like “I don’t know,” when they actually do know the answer, but simply can’t summon it to the fronts of their brains and the tips of their tongues.

Um’s and uh’s indicate that you’re searching for the right word.  The more concerned someone is with choosing the right way to say something, the more they tend to ummm, which is why, while too much ummm-ing has been associated with a lack of intelligence, it’s actually correlated with having a large vocabulary. The intelligent person has many words to choose from, and so sometimes gets caught up in taking pains to pick just the right one to express himself; “um” is the sound of his decision-making process.

Um’s and uh’s are more common when you’re speaking about an abstract topic. Although they use filler at the same rate outside the classroom, during lectures, humanities professors say “uh” more than professors of hard sciences (4.76 times per hundred words compared to 1.47 times per hundred). Researchers posit that this disparity is due to the fact that professors of the humanities have a broader, more abstract subject matter to cover, and thus more options to think over on how to express themselves; there are more ways to describe Rembrandt’s artwork than a physics formula. Whenever you’re contemplating complex options on how to articulate your thoughts, your ummm-ing will go up.

How to Minimize Um’s and Uh’s When Speaking

While it’s not necessary, and some linguistic experts would say, even desirable, to eliminate all the um’s from your everyday conversations (unless they’re excessive or clustered), you do definitely want to minimize them in more formal settings where the stakes and expectations are higher and your hemming and hawing could be a distraction. Too many um’s and uh’s can irritate your listeners because you’re essentially thinking out loud, and people want to do less thinking when listening to someone and instead be carried along by your words. Constant delays prevent people from getting lost in your rhetoric, and make them think, “Come out with it already!” They also hurt your credibility with the audience because they can make it appear you didn’t respect them enough to prepare adequately and decided to wing it, and/or that you’re not confident in what you’re saying and don’t know your stuff inside and out. Finally, a lot of um’s can signal dishonesty, leading people to think you’re buying time to think of an excuse or alibi. All in all, not the kind of impression you want to make.

Across the population, people use fillers as little as 1.2 times per thousand words up to as many as 88 times per thousand words. If you want to be the guy on the lower end of the scale, here are some tips:

Limit distractions. Remember how an um can represent the junction between planning what to say and executing it? Anything that adds to your cognitive load while you speak increases the need for these pauses, as you’re not just trying to think and speak at the same time, but are also distracted/feeling emotional/working on some other task. The more you can concentrate on just speaking, the less fillers you’ll use.

Don’t put your hands in your pockets. Studies have found that when your arms and hands are constrained, the amount of filler you use goes up, because you’re unable to gesticulate and thus are less confident your message is getting across.

Prepare rigorously. When giving a speech or presentation that can be planned for beforehand, extensive preparation can minimize your use of filler. If the information you wish to convey is fresh in your mind, a filled pause won’t be needed to retrieve it. A couple of points that will be especially helpful here:

  • The less constraints that are placed on what you can speak about, the more likely you are to use fillers. So narrow down your topic, and then narrow it down again.
  • Concentrate on the transitions you’ll make. Transitioning from one topic to another in a speech is a dangerous time for the formation of um’s, because the task adds to your cognitive load. Plan out exactly how you will transition to and from each topic, and write these transitions on an index card you can glance at during your speech.

Tell a story. Um’s and uh’s naturally vanish once you get involved in telling a story. And as a bonus, stories are some of the most persuasive and memorable rhetorical tools you can employ.

Talk face-to-face if you can. The use of fillers goes up when you’re talking on the phone. Because you don’t have body language and facial expressions at your disposal, you struggle more in choosing the right words to convey what you mean.

Try to relax and be less self-conscious. Um-ers tend to describe themselves as “unusually self-conscious” and apt to “worry quite a bit over possible misfortunes” and thus unsurprisingly speak more slowly, carefully planning and crafting what they are going to say. Instead of concentrating on what people are thinking about you (and this advice works for a lot of things, folks) focus on totally getting into what you’re doing. Instead of pausing, just keep charging ahead, talking a little faster than you normally do and letting your sentences roll together. You’ll choose the wrong word more often and have to restart your sentences more frequently, but stylistically, the audience will find your speech more fluid, engaging, and forward-moving.

If you need help lowering your inhibitions, researchers have found that after 19 beers, the average person stops saying “um” and “uh.” They also stop saying many other words that are comprehensible, of course.

Keep your sentences simple and short. The longer the sentence, the more likely you are to fall into filler. And shorter sentences make you sound clearer and more forceful, confident, and manly to boot. To keep your sentences simple and short:

  • Use more simple declarative sentences. Subject. Predicate. Period. Drop the unnecessary clauses and conjunctions and get right to the point. Take it from E.B. White: “There isn’t any thought or idea that can’t be expressed in a fairly simple declarative sentence, or in a series of fairly simple declarative sentences.”
  • Get rid of other fillers such as: “sort of,” “like,” “ya know,” “okay,” “right,” “so,” “well,” “stuff like that,” “kind of,” and “I mean.” If it’s extraneous to the meaning of the sentence, leave it out.
  • Use less hedge words and phrases, such as “hopefully,” “probably,” “possibly,” “quite,” “relatively,” “reasonably” and “fairly,” and don’t say things like, “I was just wondering…” “I was thinking…” “I don’t know but…”

Hedge words and fillers are often used to weaken and soften a sentence when someone is afraid they might be wrong and/or want to tread lightly.  They sometimes can be helpful when you’re trying to be diplomatic (and are useful in emails when you only have words to convey meaning), but many times it’s better to plainly put your idea out there and be assertive.

Now a Note on What Not to Do

You may have heard that the best way to get rid of your um’s and uh’s is to replace them with a silent pause. This is public speaking dogma; you’ll find it in practically every public speaking book out there. And it certainly makes sense on the face of it. A silent pause sounds dignified and noble while an um sounds uncertain, right?

Wrong, as it turns out.

In a study done with college students, the students were first asked about their perception of people who frequently say “um” and “uh.” Not surprisingly given the cultural bias against ummm-ing, the students rated um-ers as “uncomfortable, inarticulate, uninteresting, ill-prepared, nervous, disfluent, unattractive, monotonous, unsophisticated, and lacking in confidence.” Ouch!

The students were then asked to listen to three different edits of a recording of a man’s call-in commentary on a radio show. In one version, the man’s um’s were left in. In another, the man’s um’s were replaced with silent pauses. In the third version, the pauses were removed altogether so that the man’s words flowed together.

The result? The version without any pauses at all was rated the best. But the verison with silent pauses was not ranked any higher on quality than the version with the um’s; the silent pauses did not improve people’s perception of the speaker’s eloquence. And, in fact, the man in the version with the silent pauses was rated has having more anxiety than the man who um-ed.

Bottom line: Minimizing all unplanned pauses (a purposeful dramatic pause can be an effective rhetorical tool) can boost your eloquence. But don’t worry about trying to replace your um’s with silent pauses; it doesn’t improve your speech, not to mention the fact that the stress from the effort may make you sound worse than just relaxing and letting a few um’s sneak in there.

Take Heart Ye Um-ers: A Final Tip

Even if none of the um-minimizing techniques mentioned above are able to help you keep your ummm-ing in check, there’s still something you can do to come off as well-spoken to others: concentrate on always making the content of what you say outstanding.

In the study just described, the students were broken into three groups before they listened to the recordings. One group was told to only focus on the content of the recording. Another was told to only focus on the style. And the third was given no instructions (the control).

When listening to the recording in which the um’s had been retained, those who paid attention just to the style of the man’s speech noticed them, while those who focused on the content largely filtered them out.

And now we get to the crux of the stigma that surrounds um-laden speech. If you find yourself noticing um’s as someone speaks, chances are it’s because you’re focusing on the speaker’s style instead on his content, and the reason you’re doing that is because the content isn’t very interesting and worthy of attention. As the author of the study concluded: “Um’s will not be associated with poor speech, but noting ums will be…Just about every speaker produces um’s, but the good speakers, by keeping substance, not style, the center of attention, will effectively hide their hesitancies.”



Disfluency Rates in Conversation, Effects of Age, Relationship, Topic, Role, and Gender

Does It Hurt to Say Um?

Using Uh and Um in Spontaneous Speaking

Um . . . Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean

It’s the Way You Say It: Becoming, Articulate, Well-Spoken, and Clear



{ 87 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Brad June 14, 2012 at 6:28 am

I like this article.

Speaking is certainly an art. Two people can read the same material out loud, but one reader may captivate the audience with his speaking ability while the other may bore his listeners to sleep.

I improved my speaking ability by reading daily out loud. I also watched videos of people who I think are good public speakers, such as Donald Trump.

I look forward to reading more on this topic.

2 Matt June 14, 2012 at 7:13 am

Well done. I try very hard to think about what I want to communicate before speaking. This has become an even greater challenge for me in the past few years after suffering through a major seizure. It has caused me to process my thoughts just a little more slowly. Nonetheless, I feel I will only be taken seriously if I communicate confidently. Just working on that one trait has gotten me far in my career. People trust a confident communicator. Thanks again! I appreciate very much the effort you put into this blog.

3 Danilo June 14, 2012 at 7:36 am

Good morning,

My name is Danilo and I am Brazilian. I’ve been reading the contents of the article mainless makes about 8 months and am very happy with it.
I have some difficulty in making a presentation and speeches and so I’m enjoying the content artofmainless to improve my work during my eloquence.
I want to thank the same time, because their ideas have contributed a lot to make me a better man.


4 Benjamin June 14, 2012 at 7:43 am

Interesting Article. However, the point about silent pauses being just as bad as umming relies too much on non-face-to-face communication. Earlier in the article it was mentioned that people tend to um more on the phone, to fill in the gaps that would have otherwise been filled by gesticulation. Had the research included face-to-face examples, then it may have yielded different results.

5 Tim June 14, 2012 at 8:30 am

I would suggest practicing public speaking. I was fortunate enough to take several speech classes and Instructor Training in the Navy. My wife however joined Toast Masters. It is inexpensive and provides direct feed back on Public speaking and business related conversation.

6 Darren June 14, 2012 at 8:34 am

Two, um, words: Kato Kalin.

7 Ben June 14, 2012 at 8:38 am

As a lifelong stutterer, I find myself umm-ing waiting on my mouth to catch up with my brain. Sometimes my mouth will not allow me to say certain sounds/words, so um’s and uh’s act as a stalling tactic until I can fluently say what I need to. Sure, it’s not the greatest speech pattern, but is it worse than embarrassingly stammering through whatever I’m saying?

8 Jen June 14, 2012 at 9:04 am

The best way I’ve found to eliminate ‘um’ and ‘uh’ from my vocabulary was introduced to me in an Engineering Communications course in college. Our first presentation covered a simple topic – ourselves. There should have been no ‘um’ or ‘uh’ since we each knew our topic very well. However our professor videotaped each of us, and then we reviewed the tape with her later. It was suprising how many filler words slipped in to our presentations even on such an easy topic. We gave several more presentations over the course of the semester and were videotaped for each one. By the end, we were all cured of our filler words and figets.

9 NK June 14, 2012 at 9:13 am

Funny to see this post. First, My Father always told me this. “Know your material, think before you speak and don’t say and, um, uh, like and so when presenting in front of people”. I have heard my father speak in some aerospace conferences and never heard one or any of those words.

Secondly, When I sit in some conferences/meetings here at work I never hear what the speaker is saying other than “Uh’s”, “um’s”, and “So’s”. I end up taking tally on a notepad and averaging it later over their total speaking times. I have to sit in things that really have nothing to do with me or my department. Go figure.

10 Brian June 14, 2012 at 9:14 am

I honestly believe becoming well spoken just takes speaking slower instead of rushing and speaking fast

11 Jeff June 14, 2012 at 9:19 am

I also have had amazing results with reading aloud every day, especially if it’s something a little more complicated that I’m used to reading.

12 Samuel Warren June 14, 2012 at 9:22 am

Being Rant. I can handle Um and Uh just about all day. “Like” bugs me to no end. the sentence “It was like _______” when it actually WAS that item is the worst I think. Perhaps not the right target, but if you do this, don’t like stop… Really Really Really stop! Thanks.

13 AC June 14, 2012 at 9:27 am

I can forgive “uhs” and “ums,” but I’m merciless with “likes” and “oh-my-Gods”

14 Curtis Carpenter June 14, 2012 at 9:47 am

As a encentric business conglomorator i have to have the gift of the gap and people have to have belieaf in what i say that it is the right thing and it it a thing a i will act on. know i have not read all of this (it would take me too long) but i have read enough of it so far to help me understand one thing. NO shirt no sale you really have to fake until you make and be the change you want to see. when i am talking to people now more proffesionally on a one to one basis. thanks for this great artical

15 Matthew June 14, 2012 at 9:49 am

I never had any idea how bad I sounded until I heard a recording of my oral argument before the Kansas Supreme Court, and I had prepared my a$$ off (of course!).

As with most things, the only thing that makes it better is practice. Eventually you’ll be able to talk to anyone like you’re talking to your brother.

16 Michael H June 14, 2012 at 9:56 am

This is my favorite article i’ve read so far. Please continue with the “Becoming Well-spoken” series.”

Keep up the good work, Brett and Kate.

17 Justin June 14, 2012 at 10:19 am

@ Samuel Warren – Amen brother. Nothing, like, grinds my gears more!

18 Martin June 14, 2012 at 10:34 am

I used to be a chronic filler guy… particularly the word ‘actually’. Then I volunteered as a DJ for the campus radio station. After a few years of that, I can honestly say I am far, far better. It’s like anything else. First realize the problem, then practice until you correct it.

Great article. You very often hit upon things that I’ve wondered about. You’re providing real value on the internet to people. That’s rare. I appreciate your efforts.

19 Brock June 14, 2012 at 10:43 am

Agreed! I look forward to future articles in the “Becoming Well-spoken” series!

20 Eric June 14, 2012 at 10:47 am

I remember listening to a Stephen Covey time management tape a long time ago and it occured to me that he had sucesfully trained himself to insert the word “see” where most people say “uh” or “um”.

It sounds pretty good.

21 Anonymous June 14, 2012 at 10:50 am

I’ve long made it a point to remove “uh” and “um” from my vocabulary. The main reason is my history teacher from senior year of high school. You have to understand, I’m not normally a person who likes to repeat himself or use words that I often hear. That particular teacher abused the word “um.” She often spoke loudly and had this terribly nasal voice. She did tend to speak fast and perhaps was thinking while speaking. She used “um” way too much. In a 40 minute class period, a friend recorded her saying it over 200 times. Not even kidding. Since then, I have hated “uh” and “um” and have largely eradicated it from my speech.

22 Matt June 14, 2012 at 11:20 am


23 Adam June 14, 2012 at 11:27 am

In my old Toastmasters club we had a segment in our meetings when someone would be asked to speak on a random topic. They had no time to prepare (besides the time to walk up to the podium) and had to give a 1-4 minute speech about the topic in whatever way they like. Unsurprisingly, these impromptu speeches were often littered with ums, likes, uhs, which we described as crutch words.
To counteract this we equipped an audience member with a small horn or bell. Anytime the speaker used a crutch word he would hear the horn. It was incredibly distracting, but it made everyone a better speaker because they had to learn to eliminate those crutch words or struggle through an obnoxious interruption.
Toastmasters is great for anyone who would like to improve their speaking, presenting, hosting, charisma skills.

24 Sam June 14, 2012 at 11:28 am

A great way to become hyper-aware of your “um” and “uh” (and a good way to practice eliminating it) is to try ordering at Subway without saying “um” or “uh”. It’s virtually impossible.

25 Kevin June 14, 2012 at 11:29 am

You should have made a plug for Toastmasters in the article. It’s a great organization that provides networking opportunities as well as help with public speaking.

26 Beau June 14, 2012 at 11:34 am

I don’t remember where I read this tip from, but I’d thought I’d toss it out here for everyone:

For uhs and ums in the middle of a sentence, you can train yourself to extend the last vowel syllable of the previous words instead.

“Well, I would say that, um, on average. . .”
“Well, I would say thaaaaat, on average . . .”

Obviously, you cannot stretch the sound for more than a beat or two, but that’s typically all the time you need for your brain to start reporting words again.

Also, in my example above, the entire “pause” moment could have been avoided if the speaker had taken that 1 second pause BEFORE speaking; remember that it’s okay to think about what you’re going to say for a moment or two, and if you’re getting ums & uhs early in your sentence, it implies you’re talking without thinking.

27 Herr Doktor June 14, 2012 at 11:56 am

I grew up in a neighborhood in NYC and my speech was a mess. Practicing by reading a book into a small tape recorder really helped. Today I’m frequently asked to give presentations because I seem the most qualified.

28 Martin P June 14, 2012 at 12:06 pm

No. 1 annoying habit when folk are talking: Ums and Ahs along with deep intake of breath to indicate: “This is where you are supposed to laugh at my joke!”

29 dave June 14, 2012 at 12:14 pm

Join Toastmasters
I did and it improved my public speaking, confidence, and networking abilities 100 percent. There were also many intelligent well spoken and gorgeous women in the group.

30 MIchael June 14, 2012 at 12:20 pm

I know a guy who got rid of all Ums and ahs and uhs out of his speech. He just keeps “singing” for lack of a better word, the last sound of the syllable before it.

Most annoying trait ever. Couldn’t ever break in as you’d be interrupting him.

31 Julio June 14, 2012 at 12:52 pm

I took a public speaking course in college, and were assigned 3 presentations. The worst one was the last, when I decided to wing it.

Preparation is the absolute key. Preparation involves practice and rehearsal, and people, if they even practice, absolutely do not think of rehearsing. It does not have to be out loud, e.g. speak in the car while driving to and from work, and rehearse what you are going to say.

Having movie-star looks and a baritone voice also helps… for the first 5 minutes. Rehearse and your speech will improve dramatically. Besides using a tape recorder, rehearse in front of a significant other or colleague.

Good article!

32 Kevin Markl June 14, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Great article!

People tend to have a go-to filler word that they use. If you have someone actually listen to you and count the filler words you use and the number of times you use them, you’ll better understand what you need to clamp down on. We do this all the time at our Toastmasters meeting and it’s immensely useful.

33 mike j June 14, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Too many of our young men are unable to effectively express themselves. Speaking out loud in a clear and concise manner with a expansive vocabulary is one of the standard hallmarks of any educated gentleman. Having this ability will make you stand out in a crowd. People notice this and will actually want to listen to you speak, some might even ask you to speak for them.

34 nate June 14, 2012 at 7:16 pm

I think the absence of fillers in speech after 19 beers may be more attributable to their likely comatose state

35 Sam June 14, 2012 at 9:41 pm

Speaking of annoying speech habits, I hate it when people say “like” in every sentence. My sister did it and I teased her without end. Needless to say she stopped haha.

36 Atul Mathur June 14, 2012 at 9:46 pm

After reading this article, I am wondering what would one say to Paul Krugman who recently spoke at LSE and his speech was full of uh’s and um’s:
Speech here:

The question is: Does it matter? And the answer probably is: It depends on who is making all these uh’s and um’s and what’s the purpose of speech.

37 jsallison June 14, 2012 at 10:09 pm

Read you mentioning, um, Hardin as I was watching him, um, pick himself up during game 2, Uh, go figger.

38 KC Krupp June 15, 2012 at 1:16 am

As a public speaking coach I’m glad that this article brought up some very important points about the “umms” and “ahhs;” in particular the point that they are filler that indicates the speaker has more to say.

In general though the obsession with eliminating “uhhs” and “umms,” while good practice really are more of a nusiance in your public speaking than an inhibitor. Typically it isn’t the “umm” that throws off the listener in a presentation it’s actually the other tells that typically package themselves with the “umm:” body language becomes rigid, eyes dart away from the audience while the speaker is thinking, a persons tone usually changes, inflecting upwards which in English (and Russian) upward inflection at the end of a sentence implies that you are asking a question. Another issue is the frequency of the “umms;” if they happen frequently especially in strings of filler they interrupt the natural rhythm of the dialogue. Rhythm and repetition play a big role in how we accept a speaker and that is why filler such as “you know” or “like” are actually more distracting the “uh” or “umm.”

There are many fantastic speakers who litter their speeches with “filler” and it doesn’t take away from their impact, message, or rapport with the audience.

Now the words “but” and “however,” now those are two words that without careful conscious control can really destroy your entire presentation and typically are much more dangerous then “umms” will ever be.

39 Doug June 15, 2012 at 8:28 am

Preparing rigorously is the foundation for anything successful. The more prepared, the better off. Thanks!

40 Gary Short June 15, 2012 at 9:14 am

I liked this insight into Ums and Ahs. Having done Toastmasters a while back, for several years, it seems that the incidence of using these fillers to “keep the floor” is more common in individuals from large families. The competition for attention would have been greater in the home.

41 Mo June 15, 2012 at 9:38 am

This is great advice. It was probably the most useful advice I ever received in a college course. (In speech class) It can be EXTREMELY distracting when someone speaking uses too many fillers. I recall a 2-huor teleconference in a job several years ago with my team and a new head of the division. To this day, I can’t for the life of me remember any topic on which she spoke or any details, but I remember counting 147 “Ums” while she talked. It became nearly all I heard. I also had, until recently, someone in an office across from my cube who used a LOT of “ums”. This person was a business analyst and a medical doctor. I would have difficulty having any confidence in her if I’d met her in a clinic.

42 James June 15, 2012 at 5:33 pm

An annoying trend I hear is the use of the f-word in place of ums. not at work, just in general conversation.

43 Brad June 15, 2012 at 7:36 pm

It all boils down to your knowledge and your passion on the subject you are speaking on. If you have 100% of both, then you can speak with confidence without all the umms and uhhs. If you are not knowledgeable or do not have passion for your speech topic, then the audience will be inundated with them.

44 Malcom M. June 15, 2012 at 8:46 pm

I really like this article. Another amazing source for help is to join a local Toastmaster club. I joined over a year ago and it has helped me ummmmm, tremendously. Think about it and check it out online to find a local club.

45 Gary June 15, 2012 at 11:40 pm

Preparation is the key. When I was learning how to repair copiers the class was told that we’d have to do a Key Operator’s demo, which was just a speech about what all the little symbols on the Control Panel meant.

My military experience told me not to volunteer, so I sat through a few horrendous speeches. It occurred to me that each person had no idea what they were going to say. I made little drawings of the symbols and wrote down what I’d say. Then I practiced, silently, on the train to and from class for a couple of days.

I can modestly say my presentation was the best, and a few of the others asked how I did it. I told them and the presentations improved.

I think some people are just tentative and don’t take the trouble to organize their thoughts. I had a supervisor who would umm his way through meanings, and I supposed that he was just groping for the right word. Then one day I got a voice mail from him that started, “Hey, Jerry. This is … um … Harry.” Perhaps he was just mentally running through ways to identify himself; your boss, your supervisor, Harry, etc.

46 Adam June 16, 2012 at 5:05 am

I find this a challenge in everyday life as well, particularly at work. I was once advised to “never start a sentence unless you know how it’s going to end.” and that’s true — most of the reasons I trip over words is because I started saying something but lost it in the middle.

47 Aaron June 16, 2012 at 12:14 pm

I find that it helps to pause.

Done correctly, it helps create the feeling that you’re controlling the pace of the presentation.

I’ve even used ‘hmm..’ when I need to pause and think – mid sentence.

There don’t seem to be a penalty because again, it comes across as you organising your thoughts as opposed to ‘oh no I don’t know what to say’.

48 Hal June 16, 2012 at 1:48 pm

Great article. I also recommend public speaking classes of some sort to clean up your speech. It forces you to speak clearly and (more importantly) speak more SLOWLY. I have found that those two factors alone can drastically improve your speech patterns. I would imagine that it just slows your speech down enough that your brain can keep up. You will find that there will be fewer filler words or pauses.

If what you have to say is important enough, people won’t care if you take a bit more time to say it. If it’s not important enough, it’s not worth saying at all. If you are speaking clearly and slowly, you do need to use a bit more inflection so it doesn’t come across as monotone.

Back to pauses… If used correctly, they most certainly can be powerful tools, just like when playing music. Play the pauses, don’t just pause.

I think that with the current obsession with texting, speaking skills will continue to deteriorate rapidly. This could get ugly.

49 Tim Hardy June 16, 2012 at 3:40 pm

Great article – hope the word spreads and reaches the people that don’t realise how important an impression one’s speach can make.
Best to all at AOM,

50 JeffC June 16, 2012 at 9:24 pm

As has been noted, it’s not the fact that fillers are used; it’s when they are so frequent to become noticeable, that the perception of the speaker and the importance of what he’s saying changes in the mind of the listener. And that’s why this is important.

As a high school English teacher, I’m constantly on my students about how the way they use language determines how they are perceived by others. There are a lot of socio-linguistic factors to untangle here, so I try to keep it simple: 1) the social situation determines the expectation, so know how to shift gears from street corner to meeting your new girlfriend’s parents to pleading innocent to your first traffic violation, 2) think before you speak (just part of being an impatient adolescent), 3) reduce “um, ah, and like”, and 4) eliminate the phrase “was like” as an acceptable substitute for the word “said” as in the construction “And then I was like ‘No, he didn’t!?’, and she was like, “yes, he did!”, and I was like, “you’ve got to be kidding.”

Hearing your own recorded conversation can be the most damning and instructive exercise you can take. Start your voice memo app and lay your phone on the table at the pub with your friends, when you’re likely to forget you have it running. Have you heard yourself? You’re horrible. I have a friend who uses “actually” in just about every sentence. “Literally” is another crutch.

Keep up the good work, guys.

51 John G June 18, 2012 at 1:01 am

don’t get this disdain for filler words. They serve a valuable function and they are a common characteristic of languages. Look at Japanese, for example. I have not come across a Japanese speaker whether average Joe or company CEO that did not use Anoooo or Etoooo a dozen times in a conversation, speech, etc.

52 Ken June 18, 2012 at 1:47 pm

Participating in a Toastmasters local club is the best investment that a person can make in their future. When I was hiring manufacturers’ representatives – if the prospect was not an active Toastmaster, I did not bother with him. The Toastmasters had all the basic training for being successful in the world of business.

53 Lee June 18, 2012 at 6:02 pm

I have noticed in the past few years a severe increase in verbal tics both in person and on tv. It’s like a societal disease that spreads due to humans mimicing each other subconsciously. The offenders I hear these days are: frequently starting and ending sentences with “so”, ending sentences with “right”, and making statements but with a questioning tone.

54 Jack June 18, 2012 at 6:21 pm

Several years ago when I began noticing that virtually *everyone* says “and uh”, almost as if it were one word, I realized that I did it too. I decided to break myself of the habit, and was shocked to discover how difficult it was to do so. It took me quite a while, but I eventually learned to drop the “uh” after “and”. Now I’m one of the only people I know who never says “and uh”. Not bragging or saying I’m proud of myself or anything like that, it’s just what I’ve observed.

I’m always pleasantly surprised whenever I hear a person on TV (talk shows, etc.) or in real life who doesn’t add an “uh” to “and”. Those people are few and far between!

55 P.M.Lawrence June 18, 2012 at 9:25 pm

No, KC Krupp, in English upward inflection at the end of a sentence does not imply that you are asking a question. It depends on the variant of English. For instance, it is a common feature among Australians these days even when they are not asking questions, which can mislead others hearing it.

56 Adam B June 19, 2012 at 6:26 am

Does anyone have a website for toast masters I would love to have a go at that. I think it’s important never to open a sentence with a large ummmmm or ahhhhh. It makes you sound un confident from the start.

57 Colville June 19, 2012 at 7:36 am

Great article! Im active duty Air Force serving in Afghanistan at the moment. I recently did an interview for the TV network here and I have had experiance with speech before so can relate to this interview. On another note can anyone tell me how to email Brett and Kate Mckay? Thank you!

58 lex June 20, 2012 at 10:38 pm

Love the self-improvement articles. Great job.

When I first became an instructor at the Army Officer Basic Course, they filmed us teaching classes. Wow! I was blown away at the fillers (along with several other annoying habits) that I didn’t even realize I was using. The video camera is a great tool in preparing for a speech and improving your skills.

59 Jack June 21, 2012 at 6:22 am

I hate to be pedantic, but you should be referring to “Uhs and ums”, not “Uh’s and um’s”, apostrophes being possessive and all.

That aside, this is an outstanding article with extremely applicable advice.

60 Wes June 21, 2012 at 12:39 pm

My wife has a BS in Communication Disorders and an MS in Speech Language Pathology. She can not only point out these issues, she can count the numbers on the fly. Always with a wink and a smile. I thought I was well-spoken until I married her.

Great site, great articles.

61 Sam Gagliardi June 22, 2012 at 9:57 am

Really interesting post! – stuff I’ve never really thought about before, I’ve always been interested in the way presentation can have an affect on the way people respond to you though

62 Tyler, June 22, 2012 at 11:09 pm

This is funny for me to come across this.

I’m a recent college grad, and studied sales. My mentor was adamant that to communicate effectively, particularly when trust is needed, the speaker must remove filler words/ non-words from their lives. Not just from their presentations and alike, but from all verbal communication.

He removal technique? Clickers used for dog training. Every class a student was given clicker and told to click it whenever they heard a non-word. It worked like a charm, because it made you aware of your non-words.

In relation to pauses; I feel the study cited my not be the best source. When a person removes non-words pauses are shorter than the time it takes to use a non-word. Perhaps study in which the non-words were removed by the speaker not an editor would be more informative.

63 Dario June 26, 2012 at 8:54 am

Am I alone in thinking that the Obama example makes the article sound like an anti-Obama piece?

Also, I sure hope the E. B. White quote was ironic!

64 Vas June 26, 2012 at 11:28 am

Thanks for this article! I love reading self improvement articles.
It happens, sometimes you blackout, your brain stops even when you actually are professional on the subject. This may be due to a tiring day.
Thanks again..

65 Christopher Battles June 26, 2012 at 12:10 pm

Thank you for this informative piece.
I have been working on my speech lately and this helped me.

K, bye

66 Rob June 28, 2012 at 4:08 am

Great article, I always find something well worth my time at AoM. My biggest conversational pet peeve is the person who can’t stop saying “you know”.

You know, they sound really, you know, stupid, you know, when they can’t, you know, get a complete, you know, sentence out without saying, you know, you know about a half-dozen times.

67 Tim June 29, 2012 at 11:34 am

Tyler, thanks for sharing that. That clicker idea is a good one.

In the Army we call those “Crutch words” and they are not allowed in a formal presentation. It is not a hard habit to break if you just practice a little and watch a video of yourself.

68 KC Krupp July 14, 2012 at 2:19 am

P.M.Lawrence wrote:
“No, KC Krupp, in English upward inflection at the end of a sentence does not imply that you are asking a question. It depends on the variant of English. For instance, it is a common feature among Australians these days even when they are not asking questions, which can mislead others hearing it.”

Lawrence, that is exactly my point; the fact that Australians using inflection is creating confusion among other English speakers is a pretty good indicator of how the development of this inflection in Australian dialects completely throws off other native English speakers.

English has no defining indicator for whether or not a question is being asked nor are there any real changes in verb tense. The inflection of voice is what indicates whether a question is being asked or whether a statement is being made. While we do have who, what, when where, why, and how which are often define a direct question (you’ll notice that these words are often inflected independently from the rest of the sentence as well) there are other situations where the question is unclear: “This is spicy.” compared to “This is spicy?”

69 John Baker October 31, 2012 at 9:40 am

Great article. This is always my biggest problem when giving a presentation.

Including the ways to fix it was helpful.

70 MrAnonymous January 2, 2013 at 9:50 am

I cant believe there is a whole arcticle on um’s and uh’s!?!

71 ah chick January 30, 2013 at 2:10 pm

best article on the topic i’ve seen out there. thanks!

72 MG March 6, 2013 at 11:21 am

Very good information here. On a matter of usage, in an article about language and speaking, it was surprising to see the use of “less” instead of “fewer” preceding plural nouns. For example, this sentence: “The more you can concentrate on just speaking, the less fillers you’ll use.” You could have said “fewer fillers” or you could have used the singular “less filler” as you did earlier in the article. I would have been more comfortable had you used “fewer” in these two phrases: “less hedge words” and “less constraints.” But, I’m old-fashioned and I know that acceptable usage changes over time.

73 Waqas Ahmad May 9, 2013 at 6:24 am

Really good article. A very concise analysis of the speech gaps and some helpful tips on improving and becoming more confident and sounding more articulate.
Recently I attended my wife’s graduation ceremony and I noticed that all of the speakers were well prepared and although many of them were not using any notes, they did not use a lot of umns and uhs. It seems that academics are more “skilled” in using articulated languages.
Also many of the top and middle managers I work with are more concise in using vocabulary and forming sentences so perhaps there is an element of the skills and social order involved.

74 Sick Of Umms May 9, 2013 at 6:14 pm

Thank you for tackling this annoying problem which seems to be suffered by most highly-educated, tech-business orientated speakers on webinars and presentations… along with *THE* most annoying version of “ummm” – using the phrase “you know” every third or fourth word… “umm.. the product is.. you know… umm.. the best we can.. you know… offer and umm… we will .. you know… endeavor… umm.. to bring.. you know… the best to market.. umm.. you know.”

I wish these people could listen to themselves and how annoying they are LOL..

75 Cameron Chardukian May 26, 2013 at 10:30 am

I’ve been noticing the frequent use of “like” a lot lately and I’m shocked at how much we use these filler words. I’ve been consciously working to avoid the use of these words and although I’m not perfect, I’m quickly improving!

I find that a lot of the people who use these words tend to be people who talk quickly. I think that the people who talk really quickly are almost forced to use them because their brains can’t keep up with their mouths.

To anyone else struggling with this issue I’d recommend consciously working to use filler words less and possibly working to speak at a more relaxed pace.

76 Nick June 13, 2013 at 10:40 am

What I like to do to minimize filler sounds is to use actual words. If I have to think before starting a sentence, I’ll say “well…”, and if I have to stop mid-sentence to try and remember a word or fact, I will sometimes ask out loud “what’s the word” or “what was that again” or sometimes even “let me think a moment”. This generally eliminates any of the longer ums and uhs that people will quickly notice.
It’s no substitute for preparing yourself for a speech/presentation, but if I’m caught off guard or just during daily conversation, I feel it sounds more professional. The trick however is making sure that whenever you add in phrases like that, you say them with confidence, rather than quietly and/or to yourself.

77 Anj June 13, 2013 at 11:22 am

I was watching a SportsCenter interview with a freshly-drafted footballer who inserted “like, um, you know” into every single sentence. I wanted to reach into the TV and strangle him.

78 Steve June 13, 2013 at 1:05 pm

As a cleric and preacher, I attest to the virtue of preparation; like Fred Astaire, I work hard to make it appear that I am not working hard at all. Having said that, I was evidently born without the “fear of public speaking gene” that most seem to possess, and that has certainly made my way smoother. If you have that gene, as most do, I recommend recording and listening to yourself while using a mirror to detect distracting body language and practice eye contact. I’ve never experienced Toastmasters, but many speak of it (without umms) very highly.

79 Bruce June 14, 2013 at 9:21 am

They forgot to give what I think are the most important tips: Those who read a lot are more likely to have a larger vocabulary, therefore less likely to struggle to find the right word for the right context. And, those who write their thoughts down, especially abstract thoughts, are far more likely to speak clearly and without fillers or pauses.

80 Matt July 24, 2013 at 2:25 pm

This was a great communication refresher for me. Follow KISS (keep it simple stupid), concise, and clear!

81 Bunny August 12, 2013 at 8:46 pm

I was listening to a 39 min. interview, and the gentleman being interviewed said ‘um 157 times. Um was not just mentioned in the beginning of a sentence, but was spoken throughout the sentence; sometimes one right after another. I thought this was most unusual.

82 Georgie August 14, 2013 at 7:24 pm

My 2 cents. I’m a woman and I deliver construction industry related training to contractors, installers, and inspectors on a regularbasis. I hate public speaking, but once I got past the stage fright and self conscious attitude, everything just fell in line. I know that I use very few fillers when I’m speaking. I’m still self conscious, :). As the article suggests, I tend to speak on the fast side and just redirect and correct or repeat part of a sentence if I mess up along the way. I ask during breaks if my delivery speed is ok or if we need to revisit a subject, which has not happened since i began training last year. Now that I’m doing public speaking and training at least a couple times a month, I’m very conscious to avoid using fillers, not to mention, I find them a pet peeve when others use them all of the time. I don’t believe I every really used them that much to begin with, not a difficult transition to make. I get that everyone uses them sometimes, that’s ok. In line with the article; to me, if a man or a woman uses too many fillers, I interpret that usage as a sign of speaking before thinking, rambling, a lack of education, or they are just talking to be talking, like my mom or sister. I know, I’m a cold cold woman. Spit it out already! It may be the art of manliness, but women need to heed the same advice because I swear I run into more women than men who just can’t help but use “like”, “you know”, and “um”. *Shiver*

83 Justin September 18, 2013 at 10:04 am

I am a former teacher / business manager / consultant. Public speaking is America’s #1 fear. My impression, and it may be mine alone, is that many people do not share what they have in mind for fear that what they say is worthless. Someone in their past heard them speak, told them to be silent or that what they were saying was not valuable back in their childhood and for most of their life, they carried that interpretation with them and it affects them today as adults. I have no research or data to back this up. It is simply my opinion formed over years of speaking in public and managing others. Be well.

84 Kellen November 5, 2013 at 11:14 pm

Quite educative. The way we communicate greatly impacts on our listeners. It is important to know ourselves in terms of mannerisms in order to change. Bravo for the educative information

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86 Roberto December 31, 2013 at 8:22 am

This article expresses one of the primary problems of the current generation(s), the excessive use of fillers and the inability to communicate effectively.
Due to the fact that the internet has numbed our minds, the proper development of basic conversation skills is a must for every person.
This should be inculcated throughout life, and viewed as a fundamental tool to be successful at anything we do.

87 Ayana March 6, 2014 at 6:00 am

This was actually very helpful, and true!
I always have problems speaking in public, that’s because of my anxiety, i can never be confident and articulate enough. I liked this post a lot!

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