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Stop saying umm

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As you know, my new years resolution is to drastically reduce the amount of “filler” words I use during the podcast. “um,” “like,” “uh,” “right” etc. So as per usual, instead of getting out there and practicing , I delved into some research to figure out both why we say Um/uh etc, and if there are any strategies to fix it. And I thought to myself, ‘a good guy to know is really well spoken and can talk in a professional setting without sounding unsure of him or herself.’

After trolling a few public speaking blogs and seeing the same old wisdom; “imagine the audience naked to feel less anxious”, I finally stumbled across one of the good guys to know’s favorite blogs – the Art of Manliness. They basically did the work for me, compiled some studies on WHY we use filler words, as well as some the perceptions others have of you when you use them. (teaser – the latter might surprise you) Finally will end with a few tips/strategies you can implement.

As always, I’ll interject my thoughts along the way and clue you into my thought process on how I plan to tackle some of my speaking weaknesses – but it will pretty much be me stepping through this great blog post so please check it out and have a play around with their site.

The authors open up by pointing out that Ums and Uhs are just one factor when it comes to being well spoken. The rest of the checklist, if your interested – goes like this. You can follow along and kind of mentally check off which ones of these you possess and which you might want to focus in on a bit:

  • Creating well-formed sentences
  • Being articulate
  • Having a large and diverse vocabulary
  • Speaking clearly (not mumbling)
  • Having a good pace, tone, and intonation (not too loud, fast, or monotone)
  • Being fluent – words come easy
  • Being able to explain things
  • Being straightforward and meaning what you say
  • Being thoughtful and courteous to the needs of the listener
  • Using little filler and empty language

So on to the UMS! – The next thing that the article points out is that even though public speaking experts and professional speech givers say you should completely strike filler words from your speaking, almost everyone uses what are called “filled pauses.” It’s a super natural part of human speech and when you’re having a conversation with someone, as long as they aren’t super excessive, both the listener’s brain and the speaker’s brain filter them out pretty easily and you don’t really notice them.

It’s also pretty universal across cultures, though the words may change. We have a really good friend Mike, who has lived in Chile for the past several years and has since become fluent in Spanish. Instead of saying “Um” a lot, he says “Eh” and “Ehmmm.”

Now just because it’s natural to have these filled pauses, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about them. Their appropriateness depends on the situation. i.e. your audience and your purpose. Research has found that how sensitive a listener is to these filler words depend on the speakers social role. People expect someone like the president that is giving prepared remarks to use hardly any of this filler. THIS is why I still DEFINITELY need to worry about them, because I’m the host of a Podcast. A broadcast that is almost nothing more than us talking to the listener.

So let’s delve into WHY we use these filler words. Honestly we don’t 100% know because they can mean a lot of things. Here are a few that were researched that the Art of Manliness article lays out and you can start to psychoanalyze me and tell me why you think I say them a lot:

  • They indicate that the speaker is in trouble: The speaker either consciously or subconsciously needs a moment to plan what he’s going to say next. “uh” signals a shorter delay, and “um” lets the listener know the delay might be a little longer. This happens when you’re trying to think and speak at the same time. (I think this probably happens to me a fair amount when I start to go “off script” and react to something one of the other host says about what I’ve just said)

 

  • Ums and Ahs act as placeholder to let people know you’re going to continue speaking. When you do need that moment, it lets everyone else know you’re not finished and are still in control. Researchers have theorized that this could explain why men use filler words more than women, because they are more worried about holding the floor as they speak. I think this one DEFINITELY happens while podcasting. Since we aren’t sitting around the table from each other, we don’t get ANY non-verbal cues on when someone else should hop in – and we also know that dead silence on air when broadcasting can be VERY distracting. So this one is probably a very legitimate use of Uhs and Ums in podcasting.

 

  • They indicate we aren’t that confident about what we are going to say.

 

  • They indicate that you’re searching for the right word.

 

  • They are more common when speaking about an abstract topic. The research here was kind of cool and found that in the classroom, humanities professors say Uh way more than professors of the ‘hard sciences.’ 4.76 times per hundred words versus 1.47 times. On the podcast, this can come up from time to time, but I think we usually are talking about something pretty concrete.

 

So now we know WHY we use these filler words, so next step is how to stop them. Even though it might not be desirable to totally eliminate these fillers from your speech, at least in my case, I think it’s very distracting to the listeners for me to leave them in as I think I lose credibility with them.

  1. Limit distractions and focus on speaking – Anything that adds to your cognitive load when you’re trying to speak has the potential to pull you off track and make you use fillers while you’re thinking about other stuff. The practical takeaway for me on this one is that I’m going to try and not look at my computer screens during my pillars anymore. Perhaps even turning them off, or at least physically turning away from them. Then I can’t see the other host’s ugly mugs, see when Geo loses internet connection, or have to wake up my screen when the screensaver comes on.

 

  1. Don’t put your hands in your pockets – I thought this one was lame at first, even though there was a study that accompanied it, because I couldn’t think of any time when I shoved my hands in my pockets during a broadcast. But what I HAVE done, is just have them at my sides or on my mouse scrolling through my notes. And the study postulated that when our hands are in our pockets (or in my case, doing something else not related to speaking) since you can’t use your hands to gesture, you’re forced to use more fillers. I’m going to try and use my hands just as I would if I was standing at a podium while I’m doing my podcasting from now on.

 

  1. Prepare rigorously and concentrate on transitions. This is one that is probably pretty obvious but I’m actually not sure a great way to do this. Was looking to you guys on how you prepare for your pillars and how you podcast for some tips.

 

  1. Keep your sentences simple and short. I actually don’t think I do a really poor job of this one, because we do keep our pillars pretty natural. Even though I write the whole thing out, I don’t read it word for word, so the changes that I have a really long complex sentence are low.

 

Before I conclude, there was two more really cool tidbit from this article, and it has to do with what NOT to do as you try to eliminate fillers from your speech. Conventional wisdom on public speaking says that just a silent pause is always better than an Ah or Um. This was a really cool study (the only one I read – but all the ones alluded to in this article are available at artofmanliness.com) where they took a broadcaster that said um a lot and recorded a segment of his show. They played this version for students, as well as a version where the ums had been replaced by silence, as well as one where they totally edited the ums out and the words just flowed.

They found that in terms of perceived “eloquence,” while the smooth version won hands down, the other two (ums and silent pauses) were exactly the same. And on the other thing they measured – how anxious the speaker sounded – the version with the pauses was actually rated as seeming more anxious than the Ums.

So there you have it – more than you ever wanted to know about Ums. Turns out that there are some good reasons we as humans use it in language and we shouldn’t necessarily be on a crusade to totally get rid of them in all circumstances. I’m still not off the hook, however, because I’m a podcaster – speech is our lifeblood of the podcast and if I distract or turn off listeners because of all my fillers, you guys will kick me out.

Which brings me to my last caveat – in a variation of that same study, one group of students was told to ONLY listen to the content of what the guy was talking about instead of focusing on the ‘style’ of his speech. On the recording with the Ums, the group that was told to focus on content didn’t notice the ums and filtered them out. The author of that study concluded “Ums will not be associated with poor speech, but NOTING ums will be… just about every speaker produces ums, but the good speekers, by keeping substance, not style, the center of attention, will effectively hide their hesitancies”.

So I guess ultimately, even if I can’t eliminate some of my filler words from podcasts where I have the main pillar, at least if I can talk about something engaging, listeners will tend to filter them out and not run away from goodguystoknow!

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