Reducing "Umms" in Every Day Conversations.
July 30, 2007 9:11 PM   Subscribe

How to reduce "umms" in conversation? I have no problem in public speaking and well prepared statements, but when I'm in conversation when someone asks me a question, I use a lot "umms" because I'm not sure always what to say. Any tips to reducing this habit and talking more confidently?

I didn't realize it until my coworkers/friends started making fun of me lately, and now I'm conscious of the way it sounds.
posted by sandmanwv to Human Relations (26 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Don't be afraid of silence. Haven't you ever noticed a really articulate person who took a few moments before speaking to find the right words? You don't have to fill the air.
posted by mjao at 9:20 PM on July 30, 2007

Try to either say something like "Hold on, let me think", or make a conscious effort not to say anything until you know the answer.

I also notice that some people repeat the question back, slightly rephrased, e.g.:

"How do we do X"
"So, you're asking what method you should use to do X"

I suspect knowing that you do it is half the battle, as now you can be aware of when it happens. You could try and 'punish' yourself whenever you do it - put $1 in a jar that you have to use towards something etc., to try and put a negative association on using "umms".

On preview - yeah, what mjao said.
posted by djgh at 9:21 PM on July 30, 2007

Don't be afraid of silence. Haven't you ever noticed a really articulate person who took a few moments before speaking to find the right words?

Absolutely this. Think, then speak. If it takes you longer to think about what you're going to say than it takes to say it, that's fine. Measure twice, cut once, as they say.

"How do we do X"
"So, you're asking what method you should use to do X"

To be honest, this just makes people sound dumber to me than they may actually be. If there's nothing to be gained from rephrasing or adding clarity, don't repeat someone's question while you stall for an answer.
posted by Mikey-San at 9:30 PM on July 30, 2007

People may use filler words like "umm" because they're afraid of going completely silent for what seems to be an embarrassing amount of time. However, the time most people take to collect their thoughts is usually much briefer than they think it is. Can you get someone to record you, then edit out all the "umm"s? You might be surprised at how small the gaps are.

OTOH, the New Scientist claims that people use filler words like "umm" to avoid having the other person break in before they're ready to stop speaking. Maybe people who have been surrounded by more assertive conversationalists are more likely to use fillers as a defense.

So you may find that it's easier to stop saying "umm" in a speech or presentation than in a 2 way conversation because you are much less likely to be interrupted in a presentation. If filler words are a problem in conversation, perhaps you can start using gestures to indicate that you're still putting your thoughts together. When I'm teaching a class and struggling for a word, I tend to raise my eyes to the ceiling and make a small shaking motion with my raised hands. You may find you already have a natural bit of body language that just needs to be exaggerated a bit.
posted by maudlin at 9:31 PM on July 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Start sentences or fill pauses with "now. . ." instead. This is a fantastic trick.
posted by maya at 9:31 PM on July 30, 2007

several previous questions with related stuff. (I could swear we've had this exact question before -- it's a good one -- but I can't find it now.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:53 PM on July 30, 2007

Is there a Toastmasters group in your area? Or some other low-stress/low-commitment public speaking group? Probably the best way to improve is to do more public speaking, and get critiqued on it. I was involved in TM a while back, and one of the things they do is count the number of "umms" and "ahhhs" in your presentation, and help you work on minimizing them.

The next best thing to feedback from experienced public speakers would probably be to videotape yourself.

Just being aware of the fact that you do it is a big step. You need to consciously monitor your own speech, learn to catch yourself before an "umm" slips out, and replace it with silence. When you feel yourself start to say "uhhh," just close your mouth. Just zip it. And don't open your lips again until you have something to say. It'll feel awkward at first, but it's the best suggestion I ever got. And if you watch a video of yourself, you'll come off a lot more articulate and thoughtful.

Also, making an effort to slow down may keep your mouth from outpacing your brain as you speak. Most people speak too quickly, particularly when they're nervous: aim for "Mr Rogers" and you'll probably end up getting close to the mark (again, feedback or yourself on video are great, because often it'll seem like you were speaking very slowly, but in reality were just right or too fast).
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:54 PM on July 30, 2007

Here's a page with tips from one of the previous questions I linked above. The basic idea is, replace them with silence, and practice practice practice.

(Also, don't let your co-workers get under your skin too much - they'll be on to thinking about someone's weird necktie collection by the end of the week, so don't drive yourself nuts over this.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:59 PM on July 30, 2007

When I was a kid my family used to play a game that my folks made up called "No umm, No ahh" It's a pretty simple concept really. A person is given a random topic and they have to give a miniature "speech" for 30 - 45 seconds without saying Umm or Ahh. It sounds silly but it really was a lot of fun to play; it became a party game for us and friends and everyone liked it. It was always funny to watch someone play it for the first time. You give them a topic like "candy" and almost invariably they would say "Candy, umm...oh Crap!" My parents invented the game because I used those fillers all the time and I certainly think it helped me a lot.
posted by rmtravis at 10:11 PM on July 30, 2007 [5 favorites]

Find someone close to you (friend, gf/bf, whatever) who is willing to help you break the habit. Whenever you use "umm" that person will agree to say a word which you will choose. After a while it will make you more conscious of what you're saying. I had a professor in university who taught us this and my friends and I spent a week saying "elephant" whenever anyone [mis]used "like." Within a few days we had all pretty much stopped saying it, although I have to admit I tend towards using it too frequently still, I don't think I'll ever approach the levels we were at in school.
posted by SassHat at 10:29 PM on July 30, 2007

Try breathing in as you collect your thoughts and at the end of sentences. You can't say ummmm while you're taking in a decent sized breath, also its obvious enough that the other half of the conversation is unlikely to butt in.
posted by bangalla at 12:44 AM on July 31, 2007

Like most issues of confidence, it helps to simply act like a confident speaker until you get to that level yourself. As others suggested, pausing is a great technique that will make you seem like a more impressive/knowledgeable speaker.

However initially, try changing the umms to uhhhs, which seem to the thinking mans filler. And then from uhhhs, to rephrasing of the answer "It's a matter of mostly--that is to say", to the stage where you can hopefully avoid all fillers.

Practice when perfect, and don't let the occasional umm dishearten you. That said, continue to be vigilant, as I think it can be lazy to ignore the problem till the point where you don't even, like, totally, umm, notice the like problem.

And I blame the Gilmore Girls for this trend towards speaking in a vivacissimo tempo.
posted by oxford blue at 1:35 AM on July 31, 2007

Don't do what maya said.

I had a math teacher in high school who would say "now, then." as her ummm, and it was volumes more annoying. Don't replace it. Cut it out.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 1:40 AM on July 31, 2007

Slow down.
posted by grouse at 4:50 AM on July 31, 2007

You can also start responses with context-appropriate non-content like "I think the best way to approach that is...".
posted by 0xFCAF at 5:09 AM on July 31, 2007

I have a co-worker who never uses fillers, and I’ve found it slightly creepy ever since I noticed it. They’re not bad in themselves, though if you do want to eliminate them, the ‘don’t be afraid of silence’ idea is probably the way to go.
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 5:22 AM on July 31, 2007

Silence is the way to go. Unfortunately, I've been in many conversations where people use my brief moment of silence to keep talking. It's often as if they think I have no idea how to respond and want to help me by rephrasing the question.
posted by lyam at 7:13 AM on July 31, 2007

My daughter had this problem. I told her to substitute "neener neener" for "um." Took about a week for the problem to clear up.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:15 AM on July 31, 2007

I substituted hmmm for umm - makes you sound more thoughtful. Now I say 'hmm, let me think about that for a sec', which I think is even better.
posted by sid at 9:12 AM on July 31, 2007

I've got to disagree with substituting other filler words, especially "now." This is more noticeable and twice as annoying. The "no ums, no ahs" game is a great technique. An old English teacher of mine used to have our class play a variation of it anytime students were to address the class, and it really helped people out a lot
posted by solipsophistocracy at 10:12 AM on July 31, 2007

This is the method I used, which I wrote up in a previous

FWIW, I've started backsliding on this dramatically since I started working from home. Because I have so few conversations at all anymore, I don't actively engage in reducing umms and aahs, so when I do have a conversation, they slip out more often. It's something that takes practice and reinforcement over time.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:21 AM on July 31, 2007

I always like it when people use "well". It's sounds thoughtful and not as forceful as "now".
posted by MiffyCLB at 1:57 PM on July 31, 2007

I use "well", or at the very least leave off the ending M so that I'm saying a slightly less juvenile "ahh" instead.
Also useful is making a conscious effort to gesture slightly instead when the words aren't coming quite as quickly as I'd like. Resticting it to the hand and lower arm doesn't seem to bother people, or even be noticed at all, and the movement serves as a silent place holder for me.
posted by Gingersnap at 2:40 PM on July 31, 2007

You can also start responses with context-appropriate non-content like "I think the best way to approach that is...".

I tend to do this occasionally, but lots of people's weasel-o-metre will start to spike, because its a tactic also used by politicians and business leaders. It can also be used to change to focus away from the original question, which is perhaps another reason phrases like this arouse suspicion.
posted by oxford blue at 5:00 PM on July 31, 2007

In a speaking seminar I went to, the leader had one person raise a finger in the air every time another person said a filler sound. It completely silenced some speakers momentarily, but it had the desired effect pretty quickly. You might ask a friend to do the same for you in a conversational setting.
posted by daisyace at 7:15 PM on July 31, 2007

Something like this happened to me in junior high. Once it was brought to my attention, it pretty much fixed itself. So I'd say don't worry about it (well worry about it a bit, but only enough not to forget about it).

In class we do a lot of videotaped mock trials. During the earlier tape reviews I noticed I was making hand gestures that I'd rather not. Again, once I knew I was doing it it fixed itself. Similarly, lawyers told us that going over their court transcripts helped eliminate their use of filler words (ums, likes, ...).

I'd suggest that if you get the chance videotape yourself in conversation and then view the tape after a couple of days. You'll be able to see yourself saying um and maybe get a better feel for the situation. And then hopefully things will sort themselves out for you as well.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 10:33 PM on July 31, 2007

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