How to Stop Saying “Um” and “Err” When You Speak

February 1, 2017

Filler sounds like "um" and "ah" are common, but eliminating them can make you a far more effective public speaker.

Have you ever listened to a recording of yourself speak?

It’s one of the most horrifying experiences any human has to endure. Invariably, the sound of our own voice makes us cringe. But then, once you get past that, you realize how many times you said “um” or “err” or “you know” and are left emotionally devastated.

It’s okay, most people have a verbal tic of some kind. But the absolute best speakers – think newscasters, politicians, titans of industry – are so influential partially because they speak clearly and effectively, without all those fillers.

So, will eliminating “um” and “err” forever change your life? No. But it will make you a more persuasive, more effective speaker.

So how do you avoid those verbal tics?

You can’t just will yourself out of these verbal tics (in fact, putting pressure on yourself like that will likely make the problem worse). In her LinkedIn Learning course Public Speaking Fundamentals, Professional Speaker Laura Bergells dedicated an entire lesson to this exact problem, offering a solution that'll actually work. 

According to Bergells, there are three general ways to reduce these filler words. They are:

  • Relax

People use more filler words when they are nervous. Realize when you are public speaking, your life isn’t in danger, nobody is going to get hurt; it’s just talking.

Also, if you catch yourself using a few “ums” or “errs”, it's not big deal. Almost everyone uses them and they mostly go unnoticed. Just tell yourself that’s your last “um” of the day, smile, and move on.

  • Prepare

The more prepared you are, the less you’ll use filler words, as this will help you relax. But people also “um” and “err” a lot of if they aren’t sure what they are going to say.

The best speakers know exactly what they are going to say and rehearse it to themselves. If you think rehearsing a presentation to yourself is silly, well, it’s a lot less silly than looking stumped in front of a group of people.

  • Don’t read lists

When people read off a list or bullet points, they have a tendency to say “um” before each new point. So don’t just read a list to your audience, something that’s common when doing a PowerPoint presentation (plus, it’s not exactly the most exciting experience either).

Instead, tell stories, rather than read off slides. When you are telling a story, you’ll use far less filler words and be far more engaging to your audience.

Want to go further? Record yourself speak.

Those are three general rules for removing “ums” and “errs”. If you really want to get good, Bergells recommends recording yourself speak.

When playing it back, listen for the circumstances you use “ums” and “errs”. If you are aware of those circumstances, it makes it easier to avoid them moving forward.

Also, when you are listening to yourself, don’t beat yourself up for each filler noise you hear. Again, almost everyone uses them when they speak and they mostly go unnoticed. Understand that with practice you might not eliminate them completely, but you can reduce them substantially.

*Image from Johannes Jansson, Wikipedia Commons

Want to become a better public speaker? Check out Bergells’ course, Public Speaking Fundamentals, on LinkedIn Learning.

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