How to stop saying “Um,” “Uh,” and Other Fillers Sounds



Hi! I’m Dr. Rob Austin McKee, professor of Organizational Behavior and Leadership, here with MGT.EDU, the open access business school. In this video, we’re going to discuss.. um.. like.. how to.. uh.. avoid committing.. like.. some common types of speech disfluencies that often disrupt our otherwise fluent patterns of speech. Specifically, we’re going to discuss our inadvertent tendencies to use filler sounds such as “Um, uh, like, you know, I mean, well, so, hmm, huh,” etc. If you find this video helpful, please hit that like button, subscribe to the channel, and, of course, check out our other content.

The use of filler sounds is a universal phenomenon across individuals, cultures, and languages. Of course, there are differences across individuals, cultures, and languages, but we all insert these disfluencies into our patterns of speech at least sometimes. I contend that the occasional appearance of these fillers is acceptable. They often can signal subtle nuances in the meaning of our speech. Consider the impact of Hmm (low pitched) versus Hmm (high pitched). I would go so far as to say that these common disfluencies can be used purposefully to make a rehearsed speech seem more organic and spontaneous.

In this video, however, we’re focusing on patterns of speech disfluencies that are so blatant that they distract the listener from the intended message and make the speaker seem less competent, less prepared, and less effective. Paradoxically, it seems that sometimes the more flagrant the disfluencies are to the listener, the more oblivious the speaker is to the fact that he, she, or they is committing them.

When are we most likely to exhibit such prominent and distracting patterns of filler noises? Well, there are two answers to that question: one deals with the context in which we are speaking and the other deals with where within the body of speech we are likely to insert them.

Let’s start with context. Often, we default to disfluencies at the worst times, when we are stressed and feel like we need to be articulate and coherent in our speech, especially when we must improvise our statements on the spot. Think job interviews, presentations at work or school, public speaking engagements, and conversations with our managers, colleagues, and employees at work. When we are stressed, we perhaps lose some of our.. uh… executive control and uhhhhh…

In terms of where we are most likely to insert disfluencies within the body of speech, we often will start a statement with a filler or we will insert one in the middle of a phrase between ideas. These insertion points make sense when you consider that these points reflect when we are thinking of what to say next.

So, how do we fix it? How do we stop using these filler noises so much?

Well, the first step is to figure out whether we’re doing it and how often we’re doing it, preferably in ways that simulate the situations in which we’re trying to avoid doing it. The second step is to practice speaking without these filler sounds.

When it comes to the first step, figuring out whether we’re doing it and how often we’re doing it, we likely must learn those truths on our own, as individuals.

Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that someone will tell us unless we ask them to do so AND they’re comfortable being honest with us. Even then, they may attempt to be gentle in how they let us know.

Perhaps the best way to figure it out is to record ourselves or to have someone record us speaking when we are under some stress and improvising our statements. We only need audio for this task, but we may want to record video if we are concerned with other aspects of our communication like body language and facial expressions. If we intend to record a conversation we’re having with someone, it is highly recommended that we obtain that person’s consent to be recorded.

A few relevant scenarios we might try to record include presentations we give at work or in the classroom and conversations we have with others that are professional in nature. Again, we should get permission before recording others.

Another great way to do this would be to work with one or more friends or colleagues who also want to improve in this area. That way, the participants can ask questions of one another to elicit impromptu responses and apply some social pressure to be articulate and coherent in those responses.

And, of course, we can do this as a solo activity. We can use our phone cameras to record ourselves at home answering mock interview questions or some other prompts.

Whatever we do, we should try to simulate some of the stresses we might anticipate during a real conversation or presentation that we deem important.

Once we have a recording, we can review it… uhh… for the use… um… of… like… fillers… um… like… I mean… you know… to realize the… like… extent of our problem.

Let’s now move on to the second step, which is practicing speaking without these filler sounds, again, preferably in ways that simulate the situations in which we’re trying to avoid using them.

So, we can likely repeat whatever activity or exercise we did for the initial recording to obtain subsequent recordings that capture our progress.

Part of this practice involves learning to pause when we are thinking of what to say next rather than inserting an “uhhhh….”

We should be especially mindful at the beginning of phrases and between ideas within phrases.

We can learn to start our phrases with an inhale and exhale, rather than some filler.

Over time, we likely will come to realize that pauses are an incredibly valuable tool in our communication toolbox.

They allow the speaker to take a breath and consider what to say next. And they allow the listener to take a breath and reflect on what has just been said. So, pauses help both sides of the communication equation.

A few seconds of silence is ok. We should not be filling every available moment with the sounds of our voices. I know, your voice is beautiful. It’s like a song. But, a lot of great songs make effective use of pauses and silence, and you should, too.

Keep in mind that we are not necessarily trying to eliminate the use of these filler sounds entirely because they have some value when used strategically.

As you become more sophisticated, you may learn to incorporate filler sounds… uh… intentionally within your speech patterns to sound more organic, spontaneous, humorous, or whatever other effect you’re going for.

Thanks for watching. I hope you found this video informative and at least mildly entertaining. If so, smash that like button and subscribe to the channel. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, or you just want to say hi, please leave us a comment below. Again, my name is Dr. Rob Austin McKee with MGT.EDU. See you in the next video!