Do You Umm And Err When You Speak?

Conversational Fillers

“Umm and err” are conversational fillers. A filler is a word or sound which signals in a conversation or speech, that the speaker has paused but has not yet finished.

Recently I was asked to give a radio interview, this time about “why people use conversational fillers and why they are so annoying.” The main offenders were “umm and err” with “ahh” being attributed to the over 70 year olds. Middle aged people were chastised for the too frequent use of “actually”, “seriously”, “okay”, “right” and “well.” And younger generations were blasted by radio phone-ins for the inane repetition of “awesome”, “like” and “it’s all good”.

Personally, I’m fond of using “So…” when thinking on my feet. What do you use?

So Much To Say… So Little Time
These words of course aren’t just fillers, some are mindless cliches and some are used by listeners as conversational “reassurers” to signify, “Yes I’m still here, still listening to you.” They fill in a space that the listener assumes needs to be filled. But does it?

Some cultures favour speaking only when necessary and assume a speaker doesn’t need to be emotionally propped up with reassurance. I like that approach. What ever happened to silence, space and trust? Westerners are so used to receiving encouraging sounds when speaking, if there is silence, we assume the other is not listening.

Annoying, Distracting & Detracting
Both speakers and listeners use conversational fillers to signify an unspoken intention. The over or under use of such fillers can be annoying, distracting and detracting. What is your tipping point when “umms and errs” become more fill than conversation?

Some international public speaking organisations, nominate a club member to be the official “Umm and Err Counter” and the list of shame is duly read out at the end of the evening!

Honestly, it is ridiculous how many people timidly knock at my door, shoulders drooping, eyes downcast, admitting in hushed tones they are “terrible” at public speaking because they say “umm” too often.

How Many “Umms And Errs” Are Too Much?
Ok, an “umm” or “err” in every one to two sentences is too much in my opinion. Western audiences assume the speaker is either unconfident, doesn’t know what they are talking about, or may not be telling the truth. The occasional “umm” here and there is just fine.

Interestingly, what do we assume if the speaker just pauses, instead of filling the space with an “umm”?

Or what’s your reaction to a speaker saying thoughtfully, “Mmm” and gazing eyes up with a head tilt at the horizon whilst their next brilliant idea appears to be percolated? I’ve heard from clients that academics often use a thoughtful “mmm” to sound more engaging than a vacant “umm.”

How To Reduce “Umm And Err”And Other Fillers
Keep reading dear ones, as I explain the 3 step technique I use to coach my clients out of over dependence on this habit:

  1. Gather Evidence – first go on a research mission and note what you say and when. Ask for feedback.
  2. Slow Down To Think Before You Speak – Give yourself time to process your thoughts before you say them. No one chooses to say “umm” deliberately.
  3. Choose A Positive Substitution – Decide on a new type of filler, like dieters recommend drinking a glass of water instead of a eating a chocolate bar. I find the most successful substitution is to pause instead of saying “umm”. Simply stop, take a small belly breath, and continue on. Another method to use occasionally is to say “mmm” and look thoughtful, rather than blank. If you use other devices, please share them!

A client I recently worked with told me her boss found her unconscious habit of saying “yep yep” meant she wasn’t paying attention and instead trying to hurry him along. She’s now using a belly breath to pause and just listen or a pause to gather her words while she thinks before speaking.

Now It’s Your Turn
This is the 3 step technique I invite you to try with a trusted friend:

  • confess the conversational filler you mostly use;
  • the positive substitution you intend to use (pause, mmm or something else);
  • celebrate and learn from each others results.

Benefits Of Pausing Versus Conversational Fill

  • clearer and cleaner communication;
  • you and your message will be heard and understood;
  • you will feel more calm, confident and in control.

Final Thoughts
Conversational fillers and re-assurers like the occasional “umm and err” or “I see”, play an important role in everyday western communication. The problem is unconscious overuse in situations when we aren’t present, prepared or listening. “Like, it’s not all good, man.” Next year, aim to use less fill and give more of you. Say more, umm less!

© 2015, Geraldine Barkworth, public speaking coach. This article is the opinion of the author only.

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