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Overcoming “um”

Um3Most of the time, you don’t even know you’re doing it. You’re in front of an audience and you’re concerned with the next thing you’re going to say. That’s when you shovel in a filler word. You say “um” or “uh” or “so” or some other filler, just as we do in casual conversation. But when you’re speaking to an audience, filler words detract from your talk—they’re uninformative, repetitive, and, before long, irritating.

Psychologists say that we use fillers because we don’t like awkward silences. At some level we’re trying to reassure listeners that we’re sailing toward the next idea and will be there in just a moment.

Practiced speakers don’t do this. They know their subject so well that they step nimbly from idea to idea without hesitation. But even a practiced speaker can get caught on the shoals of “um” if she sails into unknown waters. If you go off subject, you lose your confidence and resort to filler words that betray the fact you’re groping your way along.

How do you get rid of the fillers? It’s not easy. Speaking coaches say this is one of the hardest bad habits to eradicate. But there are techniques that lead you in the right direction:

  • Record yourself. You’ll hear yourself using “um” and other fillers just as the audience does–not as you do, when your mind is elsewhere. This will make you aware of the habit and conscious of the need to overcome it.
  • You may know your subject cold, but have you rehearsed how you will express it? The need to use a filler word feels greatest when you’re grasping for a thought. Don’t grasp. Know what you’re going to say and you’ll feel less pressure to resort to a filler.
  • Inhale when you’ve finished a point. You can’t say “um” when you’re inhaling. Then go directly to your transition: “Now we should move on to . . . .” or “A third point has to do with . . .”
  • Just say nothing. Silence is your ally. It impresses the audience with the importance of what you’ve just said. As one successful speaking coach observed, when you stop talking, they start listening.
  • Make eye contact. You’re less likely to resort to a filler if you’re looking someone in the eye.

As with any speaking technique, practice makes you better. Go to war against the “um,” and don’t give up. Chances are that you will be victorious.