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The Um’s Have It

Even the most famous among us have struggled at one time or another with pesky filler words.  It doesn’t matter what the filler is, it’s still a word that fills up an empty space in our communication.

I recently noted an entire book on the misuse of fillers in public speaking.  Can you imagine that?  Someone actually filled up 320 pages talking about um’s and ah’s and other verbal stumbles.  The book title:  Ums:  Slips, Stumbles and Verbal Blunders and What They Mean by Michael Erard.

Yes, even the most famous among us have struggled at one time or another with those pesky filler words.  At first we may not have noticed them.  At first we thought we were as good a speaker as the next guy.  Suddenly, however, someone pointed out our frequent, “um” or “ah” or “basically”.  It doesn’t matter what the filler is, it’s still a word that fills up an empty space in our communication.

Once I had a politician in one of my public speaking classes.   She was a city commissioner in a moderately-sized community.  Her error was not just an “um” but a rather long sounding “ummmmm”.  The “um” filled up the entire silent spot.  Being completely unaware of this annoying habit, she spoke openly and frequently.  Others cringed each time she approached the podium.  During my class under the eye of a video camera, this woman finally heard herself.  The expression of shock on her face told it all.  Who is that speaking, she wondered?  Clearly she’d never utter another “um” as long as she lived.  The good news is she went on to a very successful political career as mayor of that city.  I heard her deliver powerful presentations.  Never again did she “um” us to death.

What are these fillers?  The answer is simple; they fill the silence between our thoughts.  If you have to think a lot, the fillers increase.  In other words, if you did not prepare for your presentation or if you are speaking extemporaneously, you will utter more than your usual quota of “um’s”.  The more you prepare, the less your chances for “um’s”.  Professional speakers and actors study their lines and practice them.  That study and practice enable them to eliminate and eradicate the fillers.  Have you ever heard an actor use a filler word, even in conversation, while acting?  I bet you won’t hear a single one.  The people writing the lines know that most of us prefer not to hear “um’s” and “ah’s” and ‘likes” and “you know’s”.   If, however, you listen to any actor interviewed on Jay Leno or by Oprah, you’ll hear plenty of “um’s” and “ah’s”.  Without the writers and left to their own devices, even the most skilled actors falter and stumble.  It’s amazing! 

Here are some tips to rid yourself of the fillers once and for all.

·         Hear them.  This may sound simple.  But, if you don’t believe you speak with “um’s” and “ah’s” and other such fillers, you will never correct yourself.  Just like my mayor, she had to hear it first. 

·         Tape your end of telephone conversations or your end of teleclass presentations.  Listen to yourself.  Count the number of fillers you use.  Next time concentrate on using fewer.  Before long, they will disappear.

·         Practice out loud your formal presentations.  If you speak for a living or its part of your job (You are a CEO or a president or director of some organization), practice what you are going to say.  If you can, audio tape your presentation and listen to it.  Practice will make perfect.

·         Plan and prepare.  The better prepared you are, the less chance you have for filling in your thoughts with fillers.  In fact, overuse of fillers tip off your listeners that you have not prepared.

·         Relish and enjoy silence.  If you use silence effectively, you will not fill up those golden silent moments with fillers.  For some reason as speakers we hate those silent moments.  Actors know the value of a strategic pause.  That moment when everything seems to stand still.  You can destroy that moment instantly with the simple utterance of, “ah”.  Remember, as you speak, you make important points.  People think about those points.  While thinking, their minds are busy.  You interrupt that precious thought when you toss in a filler.  Relish and enjoy the silence.

To learn more about how to make powerful presentationsArticle Search, go to my website.  I’ve created a group of short MP3’s that you can download.  Learn what it takes to become a powerful speaker!  Don’t let the “um’s” have it.

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Joan Curtis, EdD is founder of Total Communications Coaching where she specializes in helping smart, capable professionals move ahead in their careers by becoming skilled communicators. She is the author of the newly released book, Managing Sticky Situations at Work: Communication Secrets for Success in the Workplace, learn more at

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