*SIGH* The dreaded “um.” How did our incredibly intelligent human race come to use such vocal filler nonsense? Who knows? But all of us have been forced to listen to another person fumble his or her way through a speech at some point. Whether that speech is a formal presentation in front of a group of strangers or a one-on-one conversation with a friend, like, uh, the vocal fillers just tend to prevail. Despite all of the linguistic accomplishments we humans have made through the ages, we still have yet to master our own speaking skills.
Why is this even important? I mean, everybody uses vocal fillers right? It’s only natural. Well, this is partially correct. We are, after all, only human. And most people do tend to throw in an “um,” “uh,” “like,” “you know” in a conversation every now and then. For example, saying “um” can be an indication that you’re rethinking your position or a statement you just made. It can also be an indication that you’re about to challenge what another person just said. But when does the use of vocal fillers cross over from a person “being human” to being perceived as a total moron? The answer is surprisingly simple. If you, or anyone else, begins noticing you overuse vocal fillers, then it’s become a problem; otherwise, don’t worry about it. Evidently you haven’t, like, used them, like, too much, you know?
The overuse of vocal fillers is a problem because it directly impacts how others perceive us. They don’t add any substance to our conversation. They distract from our points. They make us look as if we are unprepared, unprofessional, and lessen our credibility. Stephen Lucas, author of The Art of Public Speaking writes, “These vocalized pauses can create negative perceptions about a speaker’s intelligence and often make a speaker appear deceptive.” Uh-oh! This is definitely not the road we want to travel, so here are seven ways to lessen our use of the dreaded “um.”
1. Focus and listen to yourself as you are speaking. I know, I know. Some of you are thinking, “Well, duh!” But you’d be surprised how often we run on auto-pilot when having a conversation with another person. Whether you’re talking to a friend, a co-worker, or the boss, one way to combat using vocal fillers is to remain consistent in your quality of speaking. So pay attention to how you speak when talking to others. The more you pay close attention to what you are saying, as you are saying it, the more likely you are to catch yourself, and stop yourself, before using vocal fillers. Yes, it will seem very awkward at first, and you may even feel like you’re speaking like someone who has English as a second language. That’s okay. The more you practice this first step, the easier it becomes.
2. Purposefully use pauses. Now, this is NOT the same as replacing “um” with a pause. Many speech coaches will tell you to replace the vocal fillers with a pause. I’m here to tell you NO! That just ain’t gonna work. Simply using pauses in the place of vocal fillers will still make your speech seem unnatural and if used too often, will make you seem unprepared and unprofessional. Instead, if you use pauses purposefully, you are still using the suggestion listed in #1 above, but you are also aware of how you will integrate a brief moment of silence. Yes, I said a moment of silence. Pauses can be a good thing. First, it gives you a chance to think about and transition to your next statement. Second, it gives the audience a chance to think about and digest what you just said. A pause can indicate the end of a thought-provoking point. It gives a brief moment for everyone to think about the question you just asked. And, it gives them a chance to respond. If you do find yourself a bit lost, searching for a word, using a pause will work if you’re in an everyday conversation, but if you’re in the middle of a formal presentation, it makes you look unprepared. What a great segue to the next point!
3. Prepare! I cannot overemphasize the importance of this point; yet, people still don’t seem to get it. This doesn't just apply just to those who have a formal presentation coming up. This applies to every single daily conversation you plan to have! Even if the conversation is going to be based on something you’re familiar with, you still need to have an idea of what you want to say ahead of time. If you’re going to ask for a raise during your employee review, have your main points jotted down ahead of time. If you’re going to sit down with your teenager and explain why he or she is now on permanent house arrest, have your main points jotted down ahead of time. If you need to explain to the HOA why you should not have to pay that ridiculous fine for removing that dying tree that was next to your house, have your main points jotted down ahead of time. I think you should be getting the picture by now. And what if you do have a formal presentation coming up? Jotting down a few notes is not going to help. You better jot down an outline of the entire speech from beginning to end. But that’s a topic for another time.
4. Practice using non-verbals This does NOT in any way mean I think you should sign up for the next miming course being offered at the community college down the road. But research does show that when we use nonverbal (visual) communication like hand gestures, facial expressions, and body moment, we tend to use less vocal fillers. You can practice this theory the next time you’re on the phone. While having your conversation, sit on your free hand and see how that impacts your ability to get your point across. Face-to-face conversations and formal presentations are no different. For some reason the average person tends to feel as if he or she should do an imitation of a mannequin when presenting a speech or when speaking to the boss. This is completely unnatural and will only help bring in more vocal fillers, not lessen them. So use those hands! Just be sure to keep it natural and not over the top. After all, you most likely won’t get that raise if you accidentally hit the boss in the head with a stray hand gesture.
5. Speak in short, clear sentences. Don’t be verbose. The more extravagant you try to make your sentences, the more likely you are to use verbal fillers and the less impressive your speaking will be. So, keep it short and to the point.
6. Take your time. No, really. Take your time. Sometimes when we get nervous, our rate of speech can increase, also increasing the chance for those pesky verbal fillers to sneak in. Purposefully slow down your rate of speech, especially if you know you’re nervous. But what if you’re not nervous? What if you’re just having a conversation? Then perhaps you just need to slow down anyway! What’s the rush? It’s one thing to speak quickly while sharing an exciting story about your recent white water rafting trip. But if you’re explaining a project you’ve been working on to the boss, you’re going to come across as frantic and out of control.
7. Play the “um” game with others. Believe it or not, you are not the only one in this world who struggles with vocal fillers. You’d be surprised by how many others would also like to work on their speaking skills. Perhaps you already have a group of co-workers you meet for lunch every now and then. This is the perfect time to challenge one another to a game of “um.” Each person takes a turn speaking for two minutes. You could have a list of topics you pull out of a hat, or get even more creative, and bring on the fortune cookies for the topic ideas. And to make it even more interesting, have the “loser” of the game buy everyone’s lunch…or if your group meets during happy hour…well, like, you know, that could go either way.
Jennifer Furlong has 25 years’ experience in the communication field and teaches communication and public speaking courses in the Savannah area. She earned a B.A. and M.A. in Communication from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. She currently resides in Richmond Hill, Ga. with her family of canines, felines, and humans. Let's be social! Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter. Just look for Professor SpeechLady. See you in cyberspace.
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