Mind the gap – getting rid of “Ums” and “Ers”

As a voice coach, one of the most frequently asked questions I receive from delegates is how to get rid of their “Ums” and “Ers” when speaking.

They worry that audiences will find them annoying or distracting and that the use of such ‘fillers’ heightens the impression that the speaker is uncertain or nervous – which may be true, but they would prefer not to let it show!

The first thing to say is that in everyday conversation all of us “Um” and “Er” from time to time. They are a standard way of filling in a gap while we think on our feet and these sounds often slip past unnoticed.

However, in a presentation or media interview, using too many of them can get in the way and make a speaker less credible than they would otherwise be.

getting rid of “Ums” and “Ers”

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So how can you get rid of them?

Here’s my three-point plan to reducing your dependence on them in the future.

  1. Slow down. If you “Um” or “Er” because you are thinking of what to say next, slowing down can give you that extra time to think while you are speaking, rather than having to pause in order to do so. Obviously, the change in pace should not be too marked, but it’s remarkable how valuable that extra second or two in each sentence can be, to help you formulate how you are going to phrase your next line.
  2. Use short sentences. Most “Ums” and “Ers” occur because the speaker is trying to deal with too much information at once. Making your sentences shorter – perhaps using only a dozen or so words at a time – helps you present what you want to say in bite-size chunks. Usefully, this is also easier for an audience to absorb as well!
  3. Switch off the voice box. Let’s face it: “Ums” and “Ers” are meaningless noises. So actively switching off the voice box (and often just breathing instead) will get rid of them without adversely affecting the content of what you’re saying. Whilst this will take practice, it’s actually easier to do than you might think. Here’s how:
  • Take the word ‘bid’, for example. When we say this word, every single sound is voiced – from the ‘b’, through the ‘i’ (all vowels are voiced anyway), to the ‘d’. If you put your fingers on your voice box, you can feel the vibration it is making throughout its entire length.
  • Contrast this with the word ‘pit’. To say it, you have to switch off the voice box for the first sound, the ‘p’, then switch it back on for the vowel, then off again for the ‘t’. Everything else you do with your breathing, tongue position, lips, mouth cavity is exactly the same as when you voiced the word ‘bid’. Putting your fingers on your voice box this time will demonstrate that the vibration only kicks-in for the vowel sound.
  • My point is that if you are able to switch the voice box off and on within a word, you can certainly do it between words – which is where the “Ums” and “Ers” creep in. Try breathing in the gap instead. Crucially, such pauses between words need be no longer than if they were filled with an “Um” or an “Er”, but you will sound much less hesitant. In fact, this new way of pausing (sometimes accompanied by a breath) can now suggest you are carefully searching for the precise word to use and can actually add to your authority!

I’m surprised that some voice coaches suggest getting rid of “Ums” and “Ers” involves just closing your mouth as you finish each sentence. But as “Ums” and “Ers” often occur in the middle of sentences, it’s not as simple as that. Also, you can still make the sound “Um” with your mouth closed (try it!)  – indeed, the ‘m’ part of the sound actually requires the mouth to be closed, so this doesn’t seem to be much help either. It’s about the voice box, not the lips.

In short, don’t worry too much about “Ums” and “Ers” if they are occasional. But if they are cropping up too often in your presentations or interviews, you need to take action.

To misquote Alexander Pope: to “Er” may be human – but getting rid of “Ers” is divine!

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