How To Break the Ummm Habit

One of the most common bad habits people have when speaking to groups is saying “ummmm” or “uhhhh” between words. Here’s an excerpt from Confessions of a Public Speaker that explains why we do this:

Most people say umms and uhhs when they speak. These are called filler sounds and we make them mostly to hold our place in conversation. You’re letting the other person know you are not done. When presenting in front of a group this isn’t necessary as you’re the only one with a microphone, but we do it anyway, mostly because we’re afraid of silence. But silence between words and sentences is good. It allows the audience to digest what you just said. Without those bits of silence you are harder to understand.

However for most of us standing in front of a room, filled with people, while not saying anything feels strange. And the easy, comfortable, natural way to avoid that feeling is to never let there be silence. Simply fill all dead space with ummms! This is bad. Few things reduce your control over a room’s attenton as much as lack of silence between phrases does.

The technical term for what happens when too much information is given to an audience, even if it’s in the form of filler sounds, its called interference. When point A is still lingering in people’s minds, and you hit them over the head with point B, they will inevitably forget some of point A. Your own words are interfering with your previous words. And when they are trying to think through what you just said in point B, and you’re still pretending to talk by saying “ummmm” they don’t get the signal that point B has been made, and they can digest it.

How do you get rid of this habit? It’s very simple. You practice for it. Here’s what to do:

  1. Use a presentation you’ve given before that you know you say filler sounds in. 
  2. Set up a timer on your phone or computer.
  3. Stand up and speak at full volume (which is the only way to practice well)
  4. Begin your presentation.
  5. Any time you umm or uhh. STOP. And start over.
  6. Next time you hit that spot, practice being silent. Take a breath. Count in your mind. It will feel strange at first but for anyone listening this will be an improvement.

This will be frustrating at first. You’ll likely only get to 30 seconds or a minute. That’s OK. You’re teaching yourself a new habit. It’s going to take some repetition. But in a few tries, you’ll likely be able to get to two minutes. Then to five. If you’re only using filler sounds once every five minutes, you’re doing well enough that it’s no longer a major problem.

Remember, no one learns to drop filler sounds without working at it.

Learning to stop saying umm requires only one thing and that’s practice. Anyone you see who speaks without doing it wasn’t born that way. They used to do it and has worked their way out of the habit. If you’re not sure if you do it or not, you most likely do. And you’re probably in good company. Some famous politicians, celebrities and executives are hard to listen to for their annoying filler sounds. In a way it’sa good problem to realize that you have since fixing it is a simple, fail-safe way to make all of your presentations better.

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