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Is "UM" Really That Bad?

Updated: Oct 7, 2022

By Stephanie Bickel

We are told that if we want to be flawless communicators, we can't use filler words.

Filler words are those short, meaningless words or phrases that we use to fill in the awkward pauses or to buy us some time while we think of our next thought. Words such as, "like, okay, right, so, and um."

However, many people use them; so doesn't it make us sound more relatable? Can "um" really be that bad?

Here is what the audience thinks about speakers who say "um":

  1. They don’t believe what they are saying.

  2. They are not confident.

  3. They don’t speak to groups often.

  4. They must be nervous.

  5. The message sounds scattered. I'm having a hard time understanding the idea.

  6. They didn’t prepare.

  7. I am counting “ums” versus listening to the idea.

  8. They must be warming up and haven't really started yet.

  9. They don't know what they're talking about.

  10. They must be young.

  11. They have not been trained.

  12. They are inventing the idea while they speak.

  13. They have only worked in casual environments.

As you can see, 'relatable' was not on this list. Therefore, if we want to practice the highest standard of communication, we must strive to be "um"-less.

Here are some tips for how to achieve this goal:

  • Record yourself speaking for 2-3 minutes, watch it back, and notice when/why you said "um".

  • Have someone snap or clap every time you say "um" and try to lessen the instances as you keep talking.

  • Every time you want to say "um", pause, take a breathe, and collect your thoughts.

  • Prepare, practice, and practice some more. Know your content so well that not a single "um" can sneak through.

  • Practice presentations or speeches in front of the mirror.

  • Use message structures to prevent rambling and losing your train of thought.

  • Refrain from looking around while you are thinking; when you maintain eye contact with your audience, saying "um" feels more awkward than pausing.

Saying "um", as well as all the other filler words, is a habit. A habit that you might have been doing for a long time. Therefore, please be patient with yourself.

YOU are your own best coach.


Would you like to learn how to eliminate filler words and sound more polished? Speak by Design tailors our approach exactly to your unique communication needs to help maximize your personal effectiveness through your communication. Contact Speak by Design to discuss a program that could transform your leadership communication skills and help others succeed.

Explore our private coaching and group training options to understand how we help individuals, groups, and entire organizations get to the next level.

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