Get Rid of Those Pesky Um’s, Uh’s and…

So much of sales is about how you present yourself. I suppose you could say that’s true of most anything we do in life. Having sold professionally my entire career and managed large sales teams to boot, I can tell you that nothing will blow the sale more quickly than the inability to present yourself well. A strong presentation presence counts whether the audience is a few people sitting around the meeting table or a room filled with 1000.

Today’s post is from guest blogger, Joan C. Curtis, EdD. A popular author, Joan’s recent book Managing Sticky Situations at Work was just released. And…I have the pleasure of co-authoring an upcoming book with Joan called The New Handshake: Sales 2.0. Working with such an experienced writer is great fun for this newbie. I know you will enjoy what she shares as much as I did!

Please…stop UMing me to death!

speakerWant to know what ruins a presentation quicker than spilling wine on the host’s shirt? As soon as you say, um. . . or ah. . . or one too many basically’s, your credibility goes down the drain.

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. Check it out: 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. For some reason our conscious minds do not hear those fillers. It takes someone pointing them out for the fillers to become loud, annoying interruptions.

Once a politician attended 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. Fillers 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 like’s and you know’s. If, however, you listen to any actor interviewed by Letterman or Jay Leno or Oprah, you’ll hear plenty of um’s and ah’s. Without the writers and left to their own devices, even the most skillful 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 it’s 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.

Want to learn more???

To learn more about how to make powerful presentations, go to Joan’s website. She created a group of short MP3’s that you can download. Learn what it takes to become a powerful speaker! It may be the best $29 investment you’ll ever make in your career. Don’t let the um’s have it. Get rid of those pesky fillers!


  1. Nicole VJ Allen says

    I think 2 other items should be added to the list: have someone else listen to you, and video tape yourself. Yesterday, my husband was creating a video for his customers and he filled it with a lot of ums. I was able to catch him and just gently remind him of his fillers. He stopped recording, regrouped and rerecorded.

    Speaking of video taping, that is one more way to help clear yourself of fillers. So many of us have webcams and those are a great tools for being able to analyze yourself. If you want a wider viewing area than the typical web cam provides, stand in front of a mirror and aim your camera at the mirror. :)

  2. says

    Fantastic suggestions, Nicole! Listening to yourself after you have recorded something like a podcast, as well as watching yourself on video are great ways to improve your speaking presence. I remember years ago being videotaped in a speaking course and discovered that I kept holding my arms clasped behind my back. It was an early nervous habit. I learned that freeing myself to use my arms – create movement – were better ways to relieve nervousness and presentations look more natural!

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