Nervous bunny tests a microphone before giving a speech

5 Easy Steps to Mastering Those Um’s and Ah’s

Q. I say ‘uh’ and ‘um’ a lot in public speaking situations and in conversations at work and social settings. What impression does this give of me, and how can I stop?

A. My response applies to any of those situations, whether your public speaking is a formal presentation or is just in casual conversation.

 If your uh’ and um’s accompany a pause that indicates contemplation and consideration, it might give the impression that you are formulating a wise response. (As if you were “stroking your chin” in philosophical thought.)

However, if your um’s and ah’s are frequent, and out of your conscious control, it gives the impression of uncertainty and self-doubt. It is a habit well worth getting a handle on in any public speaking situation. It undermines your confidence and others’ confidence in you and detracts from getting your point across clearly and effectively.

How to stop?

  1. Practice privately saying one sentence at a time, start and stop. “Hello, Mary. How are you?” (stop) “I was thinking we could meet on Tuesday.” (stop) “I was impressed with what you said yesterday.” (stop) 
  2. Try stringing several sentences together in the same way and with the same intention. It will likely sound a bit robotic at first as you get the hang of it but will gradually feel more fluent and natural.
  3. Song lyrics are great for practicing this. You never heard anyone say, “Mary had a little lamb, um, a little lamb, uh, er, a little lamb.” Pick a favorite song lyric and try speaking it as though you mean it, one thought at a time. “Hey, Jude, don’t make it bad.” (stop) “Take a sad song and make it better.” (stop) “Remember to let her into your heart.” (stop) “Then you can start to make it better.” (stop)
  4. If you are preparing a speech, I don’t recommend memorizing it word for word. Instead, think of delivering your message in deliberate “packets of genuine meaning,” just as you have practiced #1-3 above. “I was on my way to the train station when the strangest thing happened.” (stop) “There, right in front of me was a …” (stop) “Little did I know that at that moment …” (stop)
  5. Don’t worry if this seems awkward at first. It’s just like learning to play an instrument. The more you practice, the more fluent and natural it becomes.

Practicing this way will help you deliver your messages in both work and social settings more smoothly and with easy confidence.

Um, er, uh, I hope you find this, um, helpful.