How to Stop Saying “Um” When Presenting

Doug Staneart  |  11/11/18
last updated

How to stop saying “Um” is one of the most common public speaking concerns. “Um” is a filler word, and they’re a natural part of everyday conversation. A surprising fact, though, is that you’ll actually sound strange (or even fake) to your audience if you don’t use any filler. So, don’t be afraid to use the occasional filler word every now and then.

However, there is a negative impact to using them too much. They certainly shouldn’t be a major part of your speeches and presentations. Excessive use of filler words has the potential to detract from your message, so as you become more and more comfortable speaking in front of a group, it might be a good idea to fine-tune your message by reducing these distractions.

The best speakers in the world have trained themselves, over time, to minimize their use of fillers. (Notice that I said minimize, not eliminate.) Excessive use frustrates the audience and makes the speaker less credible. With a bit of practice, though, you can use fewer filler words as well.

What Exactly Counts as a Filler Word?

The term ‘Filler word’ is commonly used for different kinds of additions to a speech or presentation and may include such things as the following:

  1. Sounds: um, uhhhm, ah, er
  2. Helping words: ‘probably’, ‘actually’, and ‘reasonably’
  3. Phrases: ‘You know,’ ‘relatively speaking,’ ‘I believe that,’ and ‘what I’m trying to say is’

Here’s an even bigger list of sounds, phrases, and words:

A list of filler words and phrases.

Image source: SpeakerHub

Using Filler Phrases Isn’t the Worst Thing… It Can Even Be Good

Keep in mind that if you say or use these terms and filler phrases every once in a while in a speech, it’s not a big deal. In fact, you will sound very natural, and that’s a good thing. Filler words are part of everyday speech and casual conversations. However, if you have a bad habit of using the same filler over and over, your audience will likely perceive you as being nervous or not in control. So, do not — under any circumstances — try to eliminate filler words all together! The filler words that we use, on occasion, make us normal and relatable.

In 2000, George W. Bush had a series of debates with Al Gore. Gore, the current Vice President at the time, was also a skilled and polished debater. After every debate, the pundits would talk about the performance of each candidate. The news program talking head would say, “So, who won the debate?” The consensus was clear, “Al Gore,” “Al Gore,” “Oh, hands down, Al Gore.” Interestingly, though, when the focus groups asked the question, “Who do you best relate to?” or “Who did you like better?” the non-partisan focus group participants mostly favored George W. Bush. Gore was polished, not a filler word in sight. But Bush seemed more, well, human.

The same thing occurred in the Primaries in 2016. Ted Cruz was the polished no filler word speaker, and Donald Trump was the more spontaneous speaker. Donald Trump received a lot more votes, though.

Reduce Filler With a Filler Speech Assessment

If you want to learn how to stop saying um and other filler phrases, you’ll need self awareness for what you need to improve on in the first place. We recommend doing an assessment. After all, you can’t make improvements if you don’t know where to begin.

There are two ways to analyze your speech patterns, and they’re easy to do:

Make an audio or video recording of yourself

Do this while you’re on stage, not when you’re practicing. The relaxed atmosphere when you’re practicing is different from the charged up energy in a room full of audience members. The conditions have to be authentic. Listen to the recording and list the different types of fillers you hear, then tally up how many times you hear each word (e.g. um- 5, ah – 3)

Recruit someone from the audience or your team

Give the person a sheet of paper with commonly used filler words. Then, ask them to count how many number of ums and other verbal crutches you use.

Special Note: This is an advanced fine-tuning process, so be careful using this technique if you’re nervous or feel uncomfortable speaking in front of an audience. Filler words are a common symptom of nervousness, and having someone count your filler words is likely just to make you feel more nervous if you are already anxious in front of a group of a lot of people.

Incorporate Techniques Such as Information Chunking

You know how some speakers talk so fast one minute and then run out of things to say after that? Those speakers don’t practice information chunking. Chunking is organizing the ideas of your talk or speech, and then talking about them in distinguished ‘chunks’ or groups, leaving a brief pause in between each chunk. For example, you’re talking about the future of resumes, a possible chunking order would be:

  • Resume formats right now: infographics, pdf, and videos
  • Potential resume formats: holograms and app-based resumes
  • What resume writers can do to adapt

In that example, you’ll talk about current resume formats first, then pause before discussing futuristic formats. Doing this minimizes the use of filler words because it organizes your talk and gives you a chance to catch a breath and think of what to say next. It’s also helpful in reducing long pauses and helping create a natural amount of time when transitioning to a new topic.

By the way, “Chunking” is the technique that we use when we teach presenters how to design and deliver great speeches. You can find details about this technique in How to Design a Presentation Quickly.

Present in the Form of a Story

Filler sounds and phrases minimize once you get wrapped up telling a story. Ever notice how people rarely use filler words when telling a story to their friends? The technique also works phenomenally well when delivering business presentations. Because you know the story so well, you don’t have to gather your thoughts or think hard about what to say, so the speech comes out like it’s second nature.

As an added bonus, people love listening to stories! They also make your speech much more memorable.

I often end my two-day Fearless Presentations ® classes by going over a list of the 10 Deadly Sins that Turn Off Audiences. (#9 on the list is using too many filler words.) When I go over the list, I typically ask the class, “How many of these things did we eliminate in the class?” Most often, the answer is, “Well, most if not all of them.” The interesting thing about this is that we NEVER cover how to eliminate filler words in the class. Filler words are a symptom of nervousness. We reduce those filler words by reducing nervousness. We reduce the nervousness by making stories and examples a big part of the presentations that the class members design. So, if you find yourself using a lot of filler words, the best way to reduce them is to tell more stories.

Prepare Your Transitions to Prevent Depending on Filler

Transition phrases or words are different from filler speech. Whereas ‘um’ makes it obvious that you don’t know what your next sentence will be, “Let’s move on to…” gives you a chance to gather your wits discreetly. Therefore, if you have your transition phrases and words prepared beforehand, you won’t be caught with the kind of uncomfortable silence that leads to using filler words.

In the Fearless Presentations® public speaking class, we coach participants to have a clear idea of just a few, most important, bullet points (versus having dozens of points and slides). So, as a result, just numbering off the next point is a natural transition. “Point number two is…” or “the next point that we’ll be covering is…” will sound very natural even during formal presentations, and they are simple ways to transition from one major point to the next without sounding repetitive.

Practice Your Presentation, People!

Next time you’re about to say ‘um,’ try to stop yourself immediately. It might feel awkward to hear the sound of silence where there would normally be filler noises, but it’ll get easier in the long run as you practice the strategies above. As your speaking habits improve, your awkward pauses and filler words will minimize until you can’t notice them yourself.

Keep in mind that the absolute best way to minimize your filler words is to reduce your fear of public speaking, and the absolute best way to eliminate the public speaking fear is to get a good coach and practice in a controlled environment. That is why thousands of people, every year, choose to participate in the Fearless Presentations® public speaking class. If you want to reduce those filler words for good, make sure and attend an upcoming class!

If You Need Additional Help, A Good Public Speaking Class Can Do Wonders

Obviously, we are biased, but the Fearless Presentations ® course can really help people who have nervousness when they present, and as a result, they use a lot of filler words. The link to the class will show you the curriculum as well as a schedule of upcoming classes. Whether you go to our class or not, if you struggle giving presentations, a good class can really help!

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author Doug Staneart
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Doug Staneart is the CEO of The Leader's Institute. LLC and founder of the Fearless Presentations class. He is author of Fearless Presentations, Mastering Presentations, and 28 Ways to Influence People.

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