Is your speech plagued by umms, ahs, and other pointless filler words like “so, like, y’know,” etc? I’ve got a question from Tamara on this very common issue:
Hi Lauren – I find myself saying “um” and “ah” a lot when I give a presentation, and I hate it! It’s distracting and makes me worry that I look like I don’t know what I’m talking about. How can I stop those annoying “ums” and “ahs?”
Watch the video below for my full answer (You can click here to watch it over on YouTube, or scroll down to read the transcript):
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Oh, Tamara, those ums and ahs are rotten little devils – and they plague a lot of people, including prominent politicians and well-known orators.
Believe it or not, Ums and Ahs have a purpose. They’re called “fillers”, and they’re meaningless sounds we make that fill in a gap in speaking while we think. Fillers are essentially our brains forcing our mouths to stop talking so that we can think for a moment! Everyone – and I mean everyone – uses these fillers. In fact, according to a huge study by linguist Mark Liberman, people say “um” or “ah” an average of two or three times per minute.
Now I usually tell people not to worry too much about their ums and ahs, but if you find them distracting, irritating, or they make you feel less confident, then I have some suggestions to get you on the road to um-less speaking.
One of the best things you can do to reduce your Ums is to SLOW DOWN. Remember that saying Um is essentially your brain trying to give you time to think. Slowing down your rate of speaking will help your brain keep up, and will help you feel less rushed and panicked when you’re trying to put your words together. That, in turn, will help those words come more easily, and you’ll find that the ums and ahs will dwindle away.
The next thing – and this one can be tricky – is to learn how to shut your mouth and be silent for a moment or two while thinking.
Start by observing how you feel emotionally and even physically when those “ums” start coming out. What is your brain doing? What does the sound feel like in your throat or mouth? Then, as soon as you feel yourself saying or wanting to say “um”, close your mouth and breathe in through your nose. This pause will give you time to think without filling the silence with unnecessary noise. This is a very deliberate action – when I first started using this method to get rid of my own fillers, it looked something like this. “One of the greatest influencers on public speaking and rhetoric was Cicero. He wrote his work ‘de oratore’ in ….a (close mouth and breathe) 55 BC.”
It will seem clumsy, but I promise that with awareness and repetition, that act of closing your mouth and breathing while you think through your next words will become easier, and you’ll be able to smooth those ums and ahs down to a minimum. Closing your mouth while you think will be uncomfortable at first – silence can make us feel anxious, or you might worry that people will think that you don’t know what to say. But believe me when I say that taking that pause to think will actually make you look smarter and more thoughtful to your audience.
These two simple strategies – slowing down your speech and pausing when you need to think – can make a dramatic difference in squashing those pesky ums and ahs. Remember, though, that you’re retraining a vocal habit that you’ve probably had all your adult life. It takes time and practice, but I know you can do it.
Tamara, I hope this helps you on your path to smoother speaking.