Why you say "ummmm" when you speak and how to fix it

One of the most annoying bad habits some people have when they give a presentation is the use of “ummmm” to fill the space between words. Why do people do this?

There are four reasons:

  • It’s a habit in normal speech.  People don’t just do it on stage, they do it in real conversations all the time. We just don’t notice it as much.  In one study 40% of all verbal mistakes are umms, or filler noises, of some kind (From Errard’s book, below).
  • It’s a way to hold the floor.  By making noise you indicate you’re not done and prevent other people from interrupting you. This is not necessary of course when on stage, unless it’s a really tough crowd.
  • It’s a nervous habit. Some people do it more when they are nervous. Generally the worst way to express nerves is through your mouth if you’re giving a presentation.
  • We are afraid of silence. There is the feeling among many people when they speak that if they are silent people will boo them off the stage. So they feel obligated never to stop making some kind of sound.

In Michael Errard’s excellent book Um: Verbal Blunders and What They Mean, he explains that we make many verbal mistakes every day, on the order of one every 10 or 15 words. We just overlook them. We stop, restart, change words, clip words, repeat phrases, all the time. He calls these slips disfluencies.  Read a transcript of any conversation, even on TV talk shows, and you’ll see what a mess language is if you pay close attention.

However any repeated filler noise like “ummm” becomes distracting if you are the primary speaker. Other fillers include “So”, “Like”, and “Know what I mean” (Curiously different languages use different sounds). Anything repeated unnecessarily can become an annoyance.

As annoying as this habit can be it’s an easy habit to fix.

How to break the habit:

  • Admit you have a problem. This is always the first step and it’s the hard one. Many have this bad habit but don’t know, since they’ve never listened to themselves speak. Record your next talk and listen. If you umm more than once every 5 minutes, you may have a problem.
  • Practice with intent. In the privacy of your own home, practice one of your presentations, but stop and start over when you say ‘umm’ or other filler words. Set a goal of trying to go 5 minutes, then 10, then 30, without ‘umming’ once.  This is a great way to work yourself out of many bad speaking habits.
  • Enjoy the Silence. Depeche Mode had it right. Pick your favorite speaker and pay attention to their pauses. Good speakers enjoy their silence. They take patience between points to let them sit. And when lost allow themselves a few moments of silence to sort things out in their own mind. If you notice when a speaker is silent they draw in more power from the room, like a wave going out before it comes back in.
  • Feel the pain! Some Toastmasters groups go so far as to have an Ummm-gong: someone who rings a little bell every time someone says “ummmm” in a practice presentation.  It’s a bit militant but instant negative reinforcement may do the trick for you.

If you like my advice on this, you should check out my bestseller Confessions of a Public Speaker or grab the free Checklist for Great Talks.

Have a story about presentation death from ummms? or know now a trick for getting rid of them? Leave a comment.