The Curse of “Um”

Most employees in business are tasked to give presentations at some point in their career. Some make a living off their ability to capture an audience’s attention, while others find more enjoyment in creating the presentation than speaking to it in public.

Whether comfortable in the spotlight or not, one universally bad habit plagues speakers of every kind in every industry. I call it The Curse of “Um”.

Early in my career I audio taped my research presentations to clients, to go back and capture thoughts or ideas discussed and follow up accordingly.

I will never forget one presentation I shared which felt flawless from start to finish. Results were well received by our client, information was remarkably actionable, the whole nine yards. It was an amazing feeling of accomplishment until I went back to the audio reply and, to my astonishment, I had unknowingly caught a case of “The Ums”. Although I don’t remember saying it even once, I heard myself repeat “Um” and “Uh” time and again throughout the review.

That was a turning point whereby I started making a conscious effort to end the habit of repeated disfluencies (a technical term for that which is described above) in my speech for good.

Disfluencies are extremely common. According to ABC News, they make up an average of 6% to 10% of spontaneous speech around the world. For example, the French say “Eu” and “Em”, Spanish say “Eh” and “Pues” and Japanese say “Etto” and “Ano”.

Breaking the habit

The good news is that this habit can be stopped. The solution is painfully simple.

Harvard University’s website advises, “while you may be tempted to fill the silence between ideas with a filler word, remember to pause and give yourself a moment to think about what you want to say next.”

Presenters generally speak two to 2½ words per second. Remaining quiet for a second or two while searching for the right words to say next makes a speaker appear calm, thoughtful and smart.

We all know breaking a bad habit takes time and energy, but this problem is worth catching early and stopping completely. Especially if you aren’t aware you are doing it!

Do you have advice on how to effectively break this habit? Let us know your thoughts on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Lee Sumner, Sr. Research Manager