Speak Eagle

3 Steps to Cure Your Ums

“Mom, I’m going to stop saying, ‘Um,’ starting now,” my 11-year old declares one night as I tuck him into bed.   He then begins to tell me about his day. “So, mom, um…oh come on!”

I smile, “Try it again.”

“I really had fun today at the game when, um…oh rats!”

“It’s hard, isn’t it?”

He continues, “…when I, um…oh I can’t get this!”

Easier said than done.

Do you suffer from the plague of the ums?  Or maybe your expression of choice is “ah,” or “like,” or “so,” or “ya know.”

My personal favorite is “And.” And I use the word so much that my sentences never end and I tie everything together and sound a bit like the Apostle Paul who was known for his long sentences especially in the book of Ephesians.

These are actually all termed “verbal interjections” and they serve as a verbal pause.  We use them when we are mentally scrambling to find our next word.

The problem is, our ums and ands often communicate something we don’t want to communicate at all. Writer Mark Nichol suggests that “um” can communicate skepticism, like maybe we don’t totally believe what we’re saying. Communication author Elizabeth Hunt believes interjections can make us look uncomfortable, like we aren’t prepared. And etiquette expert Mary Mitchell writes that our interjections can hurt our image so that people don’t take us seriously.

So how do we get rid of them? I wish I had a magic pill we could all take. But I don’t. The fact is, curing the ums takes plain old hard work.   Here are 3 steps to get you started:

Step 1: PAY ATTENTION

Interjections are a habit, and like any other habit that has worn synaptic ruts in our brain, we break it and carve new pathways by practicing something new.   I suggest to my coaching clients that they record themselves on a voice recorder on their phone. Record yourself simply talking about your day or your goals or your family. Invariably, you’ll begin to hear your ums and ahs. And once you become aware of your interjections, then you can move on to the next step.

Step 2: PAUSE

Learn to be okay with silence. We aren’t used to it and it can feel strange and uncomfortable at first. But as you sense yourself moving toward an interjection, intentionally pause instead. It might feel like a really long, awkward pause to you, but to your audience it will be a split-second of quiet as you think of your next word. And that’s okay. A split second of silence is always better than an unproductive split-second um.

Step 3: PRACTICE

Don’t just practice when you’re giving an important presentation, but practice in your phone conversations with your friends, your dialogue in the break room at work, and your interaction with your significant other at home. If you do have a presentation on the horizon, prepare and rehearse until you’re comfortable and confident with your material.

As your confidence grows, you’ll find that you suffer much less from the plague of the ums. You might even cure them altogether.

But if you don’t, don’t worry. You can still communicate the most important things even if you say um.

My son giggles. “Well mom, um…good night.”

“Good night buddy. Um…love you.”

“Um…love you, too.”

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