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The Story of ‘Um’ and ‘Uh’ – Filler Words and Public Speaking

Updated: Jul 7, 2018

You have heard it a million times in your lifetime, probably hundreds of times today, at least ten times in the speech your colleague just gave, and couple of times from the newscaster on the local broadcast as she interviewed a local politician. You say it more often than you realize. It has become part of the lexicon of the English language and the bane of the public speaking consultant’s existence…..the dreaded “Um” and “Uh”.

Public speaking requires you to keep track of the content of what you are saying while you gauge the reaction of your listener and make appropriate adjustments to get your ideas across. Responding to interview questions adds an additional layer to the thought process of determining an answer and presenting it succinctly on a moments notice. That is a lot of multi-tasking for the brain and can be stressful for many speakers.

People are said to converse at 120 to 150 words a minute about 2 to 2.5 words a second. When one gives a formal speech or presentation it is natural to want to talk quickly. This fast-talking is usually caused by nervousness, a lack of confidence, or a passionate over-exuberance for one’s subject material. The ‘um’ and ‘uh’ is often used as a way to pause, to think of a response or complete an idea. When one says ‘um’ they expend air from their lungs. Two full seconds can pass in the releasing of breath on the sound and breathing in again before the next idea is spoken. The time is used to organize thought, acknowledge reaction, return oxygen to the brain, and the breath is used to release the next word with sound. ‘Uh’ is a quick shallow release of breath where the speaker does not inhale a new breath and as a result has little air with which to continue their thought.

Herbert Clark of Stanford University and Jean Fox Tree of the University of California at Santa Cruz study ‘spontaneous’ conversation and speech to analyze the use of the ‘um’ and the ‘uh’ in speech. They determined that the use of ‘um’ and ‘uh’ are ‘conversation managers’ used to fill a silent gap while the speaker processes their information or thinks of new information to share. Their analysis is that the two ‘gap fillers’ have decidedly different roles with the ‘um’ sound filling a longer gap in processing and the ‘um’ sound merely creating a brief pause.

From my experience as a public speaking consultant the use of ‘uh’ and ‘um’, is created by a lack of oxygen with which to propel ones thought forward, coupled with a needed moment to process the three communications tasks, creating anxiety that causes in a pause on the breath, and the accompanying sound. Additionally, a speaker may say ‘um’ or ‘uh’ to fill their silence with sound to communicate they have not finished their thought impeding others from commenting. Dr. Stephen Juan PH.D. at the University of Sidney states that “filler words” are found all languages.

Speakers who use words such as ‘um’, ‘uh’ are viewed as less professional than those who do not, regardless of ones knowledge of the subject matter. There are stronger, silent, ways to organize next thoughts, process a listener’s comprehension and attention, and to communicate that you have more to say that will draw your listener in more closely. It is a single, silent, breath.

Commanding a moment of silence is a very powerful tool and raises the level of perceived expertise dramatically. As an audience member when someone is speaking and they use filler words you can see the body language of the listeners pull back and seem less engaged. When you listen to a speaker who uses a technique I call ‘pregnant pauses’ between thoughts instead of ‘filler words’, a listener’s attention is held in a moment of anticipation and you can sense through the audience’s body language that they are engaged.

Pregnant pauses are moments to take in air, gather thought and communicate that you are not finished speaking that are filled with active energy on the part of the speaker. Active energy is communicated with body language, stance, facial expression, eye contact and can include hand gesture. The energy to communicate that one is engaged in active thought is found on the single inhalation of a breath.

Active energy body language techniques can be as subtle as raising your spine up a fraction of an inch, walking down stage, or leaning in slightly to a podium. Facial expression can range from raising ones eyebrow in a question mark to smiling. Eye contact can vary from looking directly at one individual in the audience or the group as a whole, with hand gestures ranging from a direct movement or holding your gesture in mid-stream for a moment. These techniques can be crafted and learned to enhance the communication of your ‘pregnant pause’ but none can be facilitate without first taking in the silent breath.

When training a client to speak without the use of filler words it is important to explain one’s desire to use these words and to identify how their use manifests. Yet, the most valuable tool to help break the habit is breath training. The cognitive and daily practice of breaking down ones speech by the breath, the practice of answering questions only after the inhalation of a full breath, and of slowing down one’s pace when story telling to enact conscious breathing between ideas, are great ways to be aware of the filler habit and to break it. Knowing why one uses filler words will not cure the habit. Working on breath patterns while speaking will reduce ones dependence on their use.


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