Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The all-in-one on ums, and how public speakers can fix them for real

You can call it a first aid, fix-it-up kit if you want, but I get enough repeated questions about ums, uhs and other unintended speech disfluencies that I'm packing up all The Eloquent Woman's wisdom on ums and putting it here in one place for you. Ums  have come up on The Eloquent Woman on Facebook; here are some reader questions and comments about them:
  • Kelli Stevens Levey asked, "ummm, how do we stop saying "umm" and "uh" when speaking? If I think about trying to avoid it, I seem to do it even more!"
  • Sheila Shukoski Kronberg added: "Ditto to Kelli's request! I do the same thing."
  • Rosetta Cooks-Bookman agreed: "I struggle with this as well. Being in a leadership role, it's important to exude confidence in your decisions/answers. I try to deliver a clear presentation in meetings and Q&A sessions. The"umm" often finds a way to slip in :( "
  • Kathryn Susanne Wells Zukowski wanted to know "How to stop saying ah, take up space while thinking. Is it totally that I am not prepared? Sometimes we have to speak imprompt and they come up."
More recently, some readers started sharing this post again on Twitter:

First off, know that ums, uhs, ahs, and all other speech disfluencies, as they're called, are normal. I'd be surprised if you had none, because they make up around 10 percent of everyone's speech.  They're just a verbal pause so you can think of what you want to say, and you can combat them with these options:
  1. Planning your message and making sure it's memorable to you is important. If you know what you want to say and have organized it in a way that's easy to remember, ums won't occur so often.  Here's how to craft a basic message, and here are tips for making it memorable.
  2. When it comes to memorable, resist the urge to tell a joke.  Turns out jokes pose a particular memory challenge, and you can read more about that here.
  3. Next, you can teach yourself to replace "ums" with what I call time-buying phrases--words that add some content, but allow you a few more seconds to think until you can get back to your point.  Here's my list of what to say (instead of um) when you don't know what to say. It's a handy list to use for Q&A and extemporaneous remarks, too.
  4. Are your ums of the visual variety? I call "visual ums" those gestures or glances that give away (to me, at least) that you're marking your place visually, rather than verbally. Repeat them enough, however, and they also can distract your audience. You can replace them with time-buying phrases, too. Video practice is what will show you these ums, so use my checklist for watching video of your speech without wincing to catch them.
  5. Make sure you're not immobilizing your hands when you speak, and that they are free to gesture. Speakers whose hands are clenched together or gripping the lectern or hidden in their pockets are more likely to stumble verbally.  Read about the science behind stumbles and how gesturing can be part of your campaign against ums.
  6. Recognize they're normal.  We interviewed with Michael Erard, author of an entire book on ums, notes that we didn't start getting self-conscious about scrubbing ums out of our speech until we were able to record our voices.  Find out just when "um" became a dirty word.
I heartily recommend Erard's great book, Um. . .: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean. It's a fascinating examination of a word all speakers use.  Once you know more about ums and why you do them, as well as the alternatives above, you won't flinch so much when they come out of your mouth. And that might be the best advice of all: Consider your ums normal, and keep moving. If you don't stop for them, neither will we.

(This post expands on and updates one I published in 2010.)

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