Thank you TJ Walker, renown communications expert, for sharing your pointers about reducing and eliminating “ums”, “ahs” and other filler words that distract listeners from truly hearing the speaker’s message. [Readers: see below how to get NO UMS stickers for your phones and computers.] TJ shares his insights:
Everyone says the occasional “um” and “uh,” so don’t beat yourself up if you do. Bill O’Reilly and Martha Stewart both say “um” and “uh” all the time, and they both make tens of millions of dollars a year just by speaking. So, let’s put your problem in perspective. Bill and Martha are still successful because they have messages that audiences find interesting. Your biggest problem is always making sure you have something interesting to say, not whether you have too many ums and uhs.
However, all things considered, the fewer ums and uhs you have cluttering your speech, the better. The first thing you have to do is actually determine if you have the problem. In my experience, executives and salespeople who think they have a problem with too many ums and uhs rarely do; and those who think they don’t have a problem are the ones who often do.
There is only one way to find out. That’s right, let’s go to the videotape (or audiotape). Record yourself and then note how often you say “um,” “uh,” “like,” or any other annoying filler words. The recording will not lie to you. Keep a tally as you listen to it. (Evoca enables voice recording using your phone, Skype or online recorder.)
Although the occasional verbal tic isn’t the end of the world, you do want to pay especially close attention to how many come out of your mouth in the first 30 seconds of your presentation because this is when you are making your first impression. Sadly, the audience will interpret your ums and uhs to mean that you are scared, nervous, and possibly unprepared. It’s okay, of course, to be nervous, but we don’t want to let our audience know that. Saying “um” or “uh” is the equivalent of filling up your pauses with punctuation; these sounds are like extra commas. Imagine that someone has sent you a cover letter and a resume. The resume is perfect, but the cover letter has a comma after every word in the first sentence. You could still read and understand the letter; but the extra commas would be both annoying and seriously distracting. That is the problem with too many ums and uhs.
So how do you get rid of these audible fillers? You should not have someone stand in the back of the room and ring a bell every time you say an um or an uh. That will only make you more nervous. You need to recondition your brain. No, you do not have to hook yourself up to a machine to receive a painful electric shock (this has been suggested to me many times!). I give my clients stickers with the word um or uh in small type inside a red universal “no” symbol (a circle with a slash through it). Then I place this sticker on my clients’ watches, cell phones, computer monitors, or anyplace else where they will see it frequently. See how to get stickers from TJ below.
Try it. You look at your watch or cell phone dozens of times a day, and now you get a visual reminder not to say “um” or “uh.” After one day, you will still say it, but you will at least be aware of it. After a couple of days, just as you are about to form that sound, the image of “don’t say it” pops into your mind. You almost catch it … but it still comes out. Drat! But after one week, the image will pop up in your mind and you will be able to hold in the filler word. Now you can simply pause, which will make you sound more comfortable, confident, and authoritative.
The goal is not to have zero verbal tics, so don’t beat yourself up or wince in the middle of a presentation if one slips out. The solution I’ve outlined may sound simple, but it really does work—just not instantly. I’ve used this technique on billionaire fund managers and politicians around the globe, and it works for them. It can work for you, too.
TJ Walker, a friend-of-Evoca, is CEO and founder of TJ Walker Speaking, Media Training Worldwide, and TJ Walker Online Schools. He is a renown speaking expert and sought after keynote speaker on topics relating to public speaking, presentations, speaking to the media, leadership, and communication skills. Receive some free “NO UMS” stickers from TJ when you send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can just create them yourself. TJ suggests, “Within one week, your audible fillers problem will no longer be a problem.”