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.