Are A Few “Ummms” Really That Bad?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 31, 2013 – 6:02 AM


A few “ummms” really aren’t that bad.

Too often, media and presentation trainers make their clients overly self-aware, drilling them to eliminate every remaining vestige of verbal filler. Clients have told me about trainers who have the audience shout at them when they accidentally say an “ummm,” or (and I swear this is true), who throw crumpled-up pieces of paper at the speaker when they utter one.

There are several problems with this approach. First, a speaker who uses no verbal filler may appear to an audience as overly polished and slick. Second, an over-focus on “ummms” distracts many speakers from focusing on more important speaking issues, such as making a genuine audience connection and conveying heartfelt enthusiasm.

And according to Michael Erard, the author of Um…:Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, “many of our norms for ‘good speaking’ do not parallel the biological imperatives of language itself.”

We barely perceive the “ummms” that are all around us in our everyday conversations. And that’s a good thing, since they’re so pervasive. As Erard writes:

“About 5 to 8 percent of the words that normal speakers say every day—from about 325 to 1,800 of them—will involve an “uh,” “um,” some other pause filler; a repeated sound, syllable, or word; a restarted sentence; or a repair, all of which is normal for the everyday speaking that underpins our lives and our society.”

Erard says that until devices for audio playback were invented, the rules of great oratory almost never mentioned “ummm” as a speaking problem. Rather, when we heard our own voices for the first time, we were shocked by our own linguistic imperfection and sought to eliminate any hesitation whatsoever.

But the body of research into speech disfluencies is clear. As Erard writes:

“Disfluency is utterly normal…our rules for what counts as ‘good speaking’ are resistant to the biological facts about it…the rules evolve while the disfluencies remain stable, and…trying to communicate without disfluencies may be more distracting (and hence more damaging to fluency) than it’s worth.”

To be clear, there are circumstances in which “ummm” can be problematic. While a few “ummms” aren’t really that bad, more than a few “ummms” usually are.

As an example of how “umms” can get in the way, one blogger compiled this clip of President Obama’s verbal filler—a whopping 236 “uhhhs” uttered during a single 2012 presidential debate.

Here’s the test: When you practice your speech, ask your test audience whether they were distracted by your “ummms.” If they were, you should work to reduce them; if they weren’t, that means your sporadic “ummms” didn’t get in the way of effective communication. You can still work to reduce them, but don’t focus so relentlessly on eliminating them entirely that doing so gets in the way of your audience connection and charisma.

If you’re an over-ummer, here’s an exercise that will help.

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Comments (5)

  1. By Art Aiello:

    I had a real problem with verbal pauses in my presentations, and my company at the time sent me to an improvisational comedy class. I had no problem with this–it was right up my alley–but the exercises in impromptu speaking really helped reduce my verbal pauses. The first time I presented after taking the class, I sat down with my boss and my colleague, and they looked at me and said, “You had us at ‘Hello’.” So, I’d suggest that as an exercise for dealing with verbal pauses if they become a problem.

  2. By John:

    My issues both as an audience and in my own speaking is not in-person presentations or discussions. Where I notice it is in recorded or televised speaking, particular radio. I suspect it is simply that the less direct interaction an audience has with a speaker, or a speaker with his/her audience, the more reliance on the audible. We no longer have those visual cues or unspoken exchanges that are a huge part of our day-to-day communications.

    And so we rely on our ears, hearing the pauses, the hesitations, all the ums and uhs we might otherwise dismiss or fail to notice at all.

    What struck me was the first time I conducted a recorded radio interview in a studio, which might have caused great angst, I found I didn’t have an issue with ums and uhs at all. The mere act of sitting in a designated seat, leaning into two microphones, was enough of a reminder that every single word I uttered would be recorded and might possibly be played on air. I even modulated my speaking voice and pacing a bit more than usual, thinking about the radio personalities and interviewers that hold my own attention when I listen. Now when I speak to an audience, I find myself imaging a microphone hovering overhead. The exercise may not eliminate all the casual ums and uhs; perhaps it shouldn’t as you’ve pointed out. But it does reduce them. Moreover, there’s an added benefit. My responses are shorter, and I express key points more succinctly.

  3. By Rich Klein:

    Ummmm…..great piece! As you know, I still struggle with these pauses on The Crisis Show. And I’m working on removing “you know” too. Sometimes the brain does things that we can’t always easily control. Thanks for making me more comfortable with them…and for not yelling at me on the show:)

  4. By Coach Laurie Schloff:

    Hi Brad,
    Thanks once again for the best newsletter in our field.
    As a coach often helps people with the technical parts of speech and voice, I asked my clients cut themselves a lot of slack with vocalized pauses.
    What’s important is the speech fluency and speed which surrounds the vocalized pauses! In other words, if the vast majority of the verbalization is well delivered,a few ums won’t kill you.

  5. By Brad Phillips:

    Laurie –

    Thank you for those incredibly generous words. And I’m so glad to hear you have my back on this one. The trend in media and public speaking training is to teach people how to eliminate the “ummms.” Frankly, I’ve been guilty of that in the past. But the more I’ve learned, the less I believe that’s a sound approach. Reduction, yes. Elimination, to the point of making a speaker disproportionately self aware? No way.

    Thanks for commenting,

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