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  • Writer's pictureMatt McGarrity

Don't worry about saying um in a speech

Linguistics can help you reduce your ums, but it’ll also tell you that you probably don’t need to.

Many years ago, I gave a 15-minute talk about online public speaking instruction at a Toastmasters event. This was a big gathering with a couple of hundred audience members deeply interested in speech. The During the lunch that followed, I spoke with some of the audience members. Many praised the talk; some wanted to discuss the topic in greater depth. One guy walked up to me, shook my hand, and said, “You said ‘um’ thirty-eight times.” I’m sure he saw this as vital information that I was desperate to know. For some Toastmasters clubs, being an “ah-counter” is an official role. During my talk he had sat in the back and marked down every time I uttered an um or uh. He was not meanspirited, but his comment was clearly meant as a critique.

You’ve probably been told that um is a big factor in speech success. I’ve been a speech performer and teacher for 35+ years and I just don’t think um matters much. Certainly, there are exceptions. Someone who is dropping an um ever third word needs help; that’s distracting. For the vast majority of speakers, though, trying to eliminate every um isn’t worth the time. I say this based on what Linguistics tells us about speech processing. With that understanding, hopefully you won’t worry about “um.” But that knowledge can also help you reduce the number of ums you say.

Why do we say um?

Humans have excellent language equipment. In milliseconds, we’re able to translate an idea into a linguistic concept, piece together with the right words in the right order, and then articulate it--with appropriate prosody--to a conversational partner. The mental processing power required for formulating an utterance is astonishing. Sometimes, we need just a tiny bit more time to figure out what we’re going to say. Maybe we’re using an uncommon word and we need to think about proper usage. Sometimes we might have so many word and sentence options that we need a moment to pick one. In general, um pops up in these moments of uncertainty and production lag. Your brain inserts an um as a placeholder until you can figure out what comes next. Why doesn’t your brain just keep it’s mouth shut? Because the um is really intended for the listener. Ums signal to the listener, “hey, I’m still talking. Expect a bit of a delay in the string of words, but I’m not done yet.” That um is giving the information to the listener about what you’re about to say AND indicates that your talking turn isn’t done yet.

Um, ers, and ahs aren’t trash words that sneak into your speech; they play a vital role in smoothing out speech production, processing, and interaction.

Ums can actually have benefits for listeners. They can sharpen attention for example. Michael Erard reported on a study showing that kids often benefit from hearing um; it can focus their attention to the word following the pause. Ums often show up around less predictable items in speech. Not only because the speaker might need extra time to pull it up from their lexicon, but also because it can help the listener integrate the surprising content easily. This is particularly important as kids are learning new words. In one study on um, listeners had to identify certain words from a spontaneous speech with ums and one with the ums removed. They were faster with ums present. The ums heightened attention to upcoming speech; when they heard the word, they were faster on the button click. In a similar study, participants had to identify shapes based on verbal instructions. Again, they were faster with ums present. The author even refers to ums as a type of vocal gesture that provide listeners with insights into the speaker’s mind, which I think is an intriguing concept.

To listeners, ums are read as lack of preparation. In formal settings, this can be trouble. One study showed that listeners classified speakers who began their answers with um as less certain of their answers than speakers who preceded their answers with equivalent pauses. That is, people who took the same amount of time before answering a question, but just didn’t articulate an um were seen as more certain of their answer. The Toastmaster counting my ums was probably of this cast of mind.

In less formal settings, this same lack of preparation can be seen as a positive thing. For example, one study showed that listeners classified speakers as more relaxed if ums were present in their spontaneous speech. Erard reports on a Michigan study that found um contributing positively to speaker effectiveness. In the study, participants called people and tried to convince them to participate in a study. What the linguists were interested in was how successful the callers were at getting people to stay on the line. Callers who spoke moderately fast and had pauses and ums were more successful than callers who had no such “disfluencies.” The research team suggested that the polish of the um-less speakers made them sound too scripted. Think of a job interview where the candidate’s answers sound a bit too canned, pre-prepared. When I used to coach competitive speech, this was what I heard most often. Hyper-polished speakers that never umed; they sounded fake. I feel like my current pro-um stance is penance for the people I coached to win in that plastic-sounding genre.

Reducing ums

Assuming that we’re dealing with a processing lag and not something more complicated like a stutter, addressing ums is straightforward. If we um because we need more time to figure out what to say. Reducing ums is largely a matter of either having a better sense for what you’ll say and/or giving yourself more time to say it.

1. Practice. This one is really obvious, but I gotta say it. You won’t have to strain nearly as much for the necessary word if you have a greater familiarity with the flow of your speech. I’m not talking about memorizing the speech, which can go off the rails very easily. I mean running the speech a bunch so that you know its flow and key pieces. Think of speech like a song or a piece of music. You won’t have as much trouble with the individual notes if you know the basic melody.

2. Decreased speaking rate. Obviously going slower will help you with planning errors. I don’t think the whole speech should be at a slower rate, but slow down if you start umming too much. This can be a short-term slowing down for a few seconds. You could also take a moment, have a sip of water, and resume. I usually have a few “go to” phrases that I can drop into almost any situation that buy me a bit of time to get my brain caught up with where I am.

Don’t sweat um

I think about ums in terms of level of distraction. The vast majority of ums occur without us ever noticing them. When the ums start to push the content aside and take center stage, they’re getting in the way of the purpose of your talk. That requires intervention. If your speech has a ton of ums, practice more and get them under control. If you know the speech well and there are still some ums in there, move on to other improvements. Don’t strive for an um-less talk. It takes lots of practice or scripting and it’s usually not worth it. At some point, you’re fighting against the very nature of human speech.

At this point in my career, I’ve coached thousands of people in thousands of speeches. My advice to those who ask about um is usually, “Don’t worry about it; you’re fine. Focus on these other improvements first.” Ums are part of speech. Come to terms with them rather than trying to scrub everyone out of existence.

After my Toastmasters “ah-counter” presented me with my receipt for thirty-eight ums, I politely thanked him and moved on. I don’t count ums because I don’t think they count for much.

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