Killing the dumb “um”

The dumb umHow … um … annoying … um … is it … um … reading this … um … um … sentence?

Pretty painful, huh?

Listening to people whose speech is littered with one um after another is even more painful than trying to read that. Worse yet, the ability to follow what they’re saying is challenging, and you can forget about staying focused on the message they are trying to convey.

You don’t think you’re guilty of this?

Well, how about taking this little test just to see?

It’s simple. Take 10 seconds (only 10) to think of a topic about which you want to discuss with someone. It should relate to something currently going on in your life such that you are knowledgeable about it. Now, call yourself, and leave yourself a one-minute voice mail. Time it. Keep talking for the full minute.  When you are done, come back and continue reading.

A little uncomfortable? Wait until you read the next part.

Listen back to your message and count the number of times you said the word um (by the way, include each uh too). How’d you do? Zero, one, more than ten? Don’t worry, I’m not going to give you a number that represents a passing or failing score. The point is, using um can really distract your listeners from hearing your message — the main point of your communication to them in the first place. To be clear, this is not about voice mails. I haven’t received one of those ancient forms of communication in months. It’s about improving the probability that your message is heard and understood.

Okay, so let’s say you found yourself saying um too many times. What can you do about it?

Here’s an approach to try. I call it the pause technique, and it’s very easy to learn. Leave yourself some more voice mails following the same guidelines as above, and each time you catch yourself getting ready to saying um, pause instead. That’s right. Don’t say anything until you’re ready to talk again. You might think that this will result in a really choppy delivery, but in fact, we tend to talk so quickly, that when we pause to eliminate the um (the pauses get shorter over time too), it actual results in a very pleasant, smooth delivery — increasing the probability of your message being heard and understood.

Give it a try, and leave me a comment on how well it worked for you.


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  1. Christine says:

    Thanks so much, and we become more related some of us so have the “um” problem. Your technique of leaving and phone message to one’s self is extremely valuable. Moreover, your solution of taking a pause is helpful as well. Again thank you for this invaluable information.