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Um-Busting in 3 Simple Steps

Kim Brebach - Friday, September 21, 2012

Um-Busting - how to eliminate ums and ahs

Get some filler word therapy. 

Workers in so many professions need public speaking skills these days, whether it’s for radio interviews, presentations to clients, speaking at conferences or making videos. With video facilities on every camera and mobile phone, everyone wants to be an actor, but good actors aren’t born: they’re trained, coached and practised. That’s why we’ve added training in public speaking and presentation to our services; poor presentations, especially by senior technical people, can derail the sales process in an instant.

A common problem is the volume of so-called 'ums' and 'ahs' that pepper every sentence some people utter. The odd filler word is fine, but an excess soon becomes painful for listeners. You’ve most likely sat through speeches or presentations where, after a short time, you found yourself waiting for the next UM or AH rather than listening to the words. If you've ever listened to Tony Abbott the Opposition Leader. you'll know exactly what I mean.

Ums and ahs really destroy your presentation. They:

  • Distract the audience
  • Become the focus of audience attention
  • Make people cringe/switch off
  • Destroy your credibility

You also find them in surprising places: A well-known journalist interviewed on morning radio recently flooded the airwaves with UMs and AHs – I counted over 120 in 7 minutes. Even an actor I heard interviewed on radio one day stuffed his sentences with UMs and AHs. You end up wondering why no one has pulled these people aside and said something – maybe it’s like people with bad breath:
no one wants to be the first to tell them.

1. Acknowledge the problem

The sad part is that most of the perpetrators remain blissfully unaware of what they’re inflicting on their cringing audiences. The good part is that it’s easily fixed. In our Toastmasters club, I had a new member to mentor. He was one of the worst offenders I can recall, but he had no idea. In fact, he didn’t believe me until I recorded one of his speeches on video.

He was mortified when we played it back. You see, like most of the things we do in life, UMs and AHs are simply bad habits we’ve developed. Sure, some filler words are uttered to cover memory lapses or to buy time to think, but most of them are uttered out habit. Deciding to change a bad habit like this is the first step in solving the problem.

2. Attack it

The most direct way (if not the easiest) to fix the problem is to ask your partner or sister or parent or a friend to help you by counting the Ums and Ahs in your verbal deliveries. Even better, give them practice presentations and ask them to record you. Watch the replay and start working on reducing the number of UMs and AHs. Repeat the performance and see if you can reduce the count. It’s targeted practice with frequent correction.

Once it becomes a conscious effort to nip the Ums and Ahs in the bud, you’re on the way. Some people find this difficult, because they’re embarrassed. If you’re one of those, then do it yourself: speak to the video camera in a private room, and analyse the replays.

3. Filler word therapy

Once you’ve accepted that you have a problem and you’ve decided to solve it, the best way to banish UMs and AHs is to replace them. That’s what filler word therapy is about, and it’s just three simple techniques:

  • Use of transition phrases
  • Repeating questions/key points
  • Learning to use pauses

Transition phrases are phrases like ‘moving on to the next point,’ or ‘let me give you an example,’ or ‘what I mean will be clear on the next slide’. Repeating a question is a common ploy politicians use in off-the-cuff interviews, to buy time to think. Many professional speakers prefer to use pauses, because they actually help to refocus the attention of their audience. They also use pauses to underscore a point.

Pauses are powerful tools when used well. The trick with pauses is that most of us fear them for some reason. It’s another bad habit. Learn to love the pause, use it and look people in the eyes with confidence so they know your use of the pause is intentional. The last point is that more practice will make you a more confident speaker, and more confidence makes it a whole lot easier to speak fluently and to think on your feet.

Summing up

Ums and Ahs aren’t the only filler words people use, of course. ‘You know,’ and ‘actually’ are pretty popular, and ‘like’ seems to pepper every sentence some teenage girls utter. Conjunctions like ‘and’ or ‘but’ are also popular with many people who use them to fill in gaps, or as ‘run-on sentences’ to create the illusion of fluidity. It’s best to treat them all with disdain but please don’t become too clinical in your verbal delivery – imperfections add a useful touch of reality.


Kim Brebach
Content Chief

I've always loved people and words. As long as I can remember, I've been a story-teller and the team here says I'm pretty good at it. That's probably why I head up the Content Team: I create the arc of the story and others add their magic. 

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