Why you say ummmm when you speak

by Scott | 5/19/2009

One of the most annoying and bad habits of public speakers is the constant use of “ummmm” to fill the space between words. Why do we 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 of some kind (From Erard’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 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, and never to stop making some kind of noise.

In Michael Errard’s excellent book Um: verbal blunders and what they mean, he explains that we make many verbal blunders all day 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”. 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. You may do it an not know. Record the next talk you give and listen. If you umm more than once every 10 minutes, you may have a problem.
  • Practice. Most people can learn their way out of the habit if they practice talking and catch themselves every time they um.
  • 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 “ummmgong”, someone who rings a little bell every time someone says “ummmm” in a practice presentation.  It’s a bit militant but it probably works.

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

18 Responses to “Why you say ummmm when you speak”

  1. Jonathan Kahn Says:

    Hi Scott,

    Nice post. I first learned about the “umm” thing when reading Max Atkinson’s “Lend Me Your Ears”, which a friend lent me when I had to prepare for a best man’s speech!

    To add to what you say here, I’ve also noticed that using “umm” in actual conversation isn’t such a good habit either—trying to hold the floor can often be passive aggressive. I’ve noticed that some people who feel that they need time to gather their thoughts, try to hold the floor with an “umm”, forcing others to wait. I now try to suppress my own “umm”s in normal conversation, to allow other people to speak.

  2. Scott Kiser Says:

    Nice write!

    During and after college, I tended bar and began to talk like a sailor; a young lady I knew at the time objected, so I looked for ways to change my speech patterns. I chose to use another exclamation in place of a curse. At first I was very self-conscious, halting my speech and quite deliberately saying “egad” or whatever silly word I had chosen; but over time it became second nature.

    I think the point is that it is never effective to say, “I will stop doing this,” rather, one should say, “I will do that instead.” When one removes a habit, it leaves a vacuum; something else, quite possibly something negative, will rush in if you don’t deliberately replace it with something positive.

    So, like, that’s my entire post. Um.

  3. Steve Arrowood Says:

    This topic cannot get too much attention. Thanks for bringing it up.

    There is a line that exists for these ‘fillers’/'mistakes’/'disfluencies’, and the line shifts depending on the individual filters and social dynamic.

    Linguists have referred to “um” etc. as discourse markers. This is because all language we make, verbally and non, is purposeful. But it can be perceived as a mistake depending on the individual and the dynamic.

    I wrote some more about the other side of the toastmaster coin here: http://arrowoodcurve.blogspot.com/2009/03/um-er-like-uh.html

  4. Scott Says:

    It seems everyone has different levels of sensitivity to this and how much it annoys them when speakers do it. I know some people who can’t listen – they are so distracted by the umms they want to get up and leave rather than fight their way through. And then there are other people who barely seem to notice many of the subtle annoyances that fill books on public speaking.

    I do believe everything matters – even if it’s a slight distraction, public speaking is hard enough – if you can remove something that likely distracts half the audience, it’s a better use of practice than adding more to the talk.

  5. Scott Says:

    Also see this:

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/05/06/the_odd_body_language_fillers/

  6. scottberkun.com » Wednesday linkfest + Confessions Says:

    [...] Why we say ummmmm. Some facts on one of the most annoying things about public speakers. [...]

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    [...] This post was Twitted by javelin_rondo – Real-url.org [...]

  8. Sharon Lensky Says:

    Two of my teachers helped drive this point home with me. One, in tenth grade English, would intone “Don’t say um” each time one of the students slipped. It made us painfully aware of the number of times this actually happens. The other, in my grad school computer science program, was a perpetrator. He filled his dead air time with the phrase “by the way” and created myriad run-on sentences. It got so bad that, by the second lecture, I was making a tick mark on a piece of paper each time he uttered it. He averaged about 120 occurrences per two hour lecture. Ugh.

  9. Vince Stevenson Says:

    Yes, this is one of the issues that I work on really hard with my students. How to eliminate those awful umms and ahhs. It is possible, it takes a bit of time and concentration, but it can be achieved. I have seen average speakers become much improved speakers, simply by working on this one aspect of technique. Rgds Vince

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    [...] second piece of conventional advice is to insert a pause and learn to enjoy the power of silence. Good speakers enjoy their silence. They take patience between points to let them sit. And when [...]

  11. andy Says:

    awesome!!!!!!!

  12. Dana Says:

    Natalie Portman had in excess of 30 ums in her 2011 acceptance speech at the Academy Awards – really? Isn’t she a professional?

  13. 10 Reasons Women Don’t Like You This Valentine’s Day (Or Any Other Day) | David Black Social Masters Blog Says:

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  14. sophia Says:

    i say ummmmm when i forget what i was going to say

  15. robert murphy Says:

    the worts is the purposeful ummmm, in other words an arrogant/smug person (in normal conversation)who is not nervous but utters it because he/she loves they way it comes out of their mouth.
    there is this guy at work, he never said ummmm before, now this is all you hear from him, he must have heard someone doing it, and liked it, now he does it ad nauseum.

    the second worse (a close second) is soooooooo.

  16. Briana Says:

    hi , ummmmm i think everyone says “umm” its just normal to me when im thinking of an answer to an Question i say “umm” when i cant remeber something i say “ummm” its just a habit to me some people say i say “ummm” to much! lol but ooowelll .

  17. art Says:

    I think you all need help. Ummm is as important to people as breathing. Try and reduce your own sensitivities

  18. Benjamin Says:

    ummmmmmmmm………

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