How to Stop the ‘Ums’ and ‘Uhs’

Um, uh

We’ve all been there. In ameeting someone asks you an unexpected question that you don’t immediately know how to answer. As your mind searches for something to say, your mouth begins to speak.

If you were to listen to a recording of your response, it would likely include a few “ums” and “uhs” as you pieced together a response.

Or maybe you’ve been on the receiving end, listening to someone give a presentation that is littered with “ums” and “uhs.”

These are known as filler words. These are the occasional hiccups in language we find in everyday conversation. They happen because, linguists tell us, people speak 120 to 150 words per minute — or two to 2 1/2 words per second — in normal speech.

With that speed, it’s normal to have glitches in our sentences. Studies find that 6 to 10 percent of spontaneous speech has some kind of garble, including filler words.

In fact, this is a common phenomenon around the world. Researchers find all languages have their own versions of “um” and “uh.” If you’d like to add a foreign flair to your next stammer, consider Spanish “eh” and “pues,” French “eu” and “em,” or even Japanese “etto” and “ano,” to name a few. 😉

Whether you have occasionally dipped your toe in the filler-word pool, or are completely submerged, and don’t even realize you’re wet, it’s in your interest to prevent these phrases from permeating your language.

That’s because the overuse of “ums” and “uhs” may have negative effects on your communication, including:

Giving the perception that you are uncertain and lacking in confidence, thus reducing your credibility.

Distracting people from your message. They often end up counting the filler words or being so annoyed they tune you out.

Making you seem to have a limited vocabulary, like you don’t have the words to express what you want to say.

So, how do you learn to control these filler phrases?

It starts with developing awareness. Many people don’t realize that they rely on these filler words.

Others know they’ve adopted filler words but don’t realize how often they are saying them. You know these people. They use “like” and “right” and think they are using them sparingly, but in fact are literally (another of those words) using them

To bring this to people’s consciousness, some speech coaches will drop pennies in a metal can, hit a spoon on a glass, or use a clicker like those used in dog training. These noises are meant to bring awareness to the person while they are speaking.

In very severe cases, I may briefly employ this method. But in general I find this negative reinforcement doesn’t correct the problem and undermines confidence for the speaker.

For more long-term success, I prefer a method I’ve used for years that is also employed in Toastmasters Clubs. Rather than constantly interrupting the speaker, someone simply counts and reports the number of filler words used.

This should be accompanied by a video or audio recording, so the person can hear when and how often filler words surfaced. It can come as a shock.

Working with the president of a large, well-known company, I once sat in the audience as he spoke for 20 minutes, without slides, to employees. I counted 46 times that he asked, “right?” He did not recall one of them!

Once you’re aware of the problem, here are some solutions:

Slow down.
Learn to become comfortable with a moment of silence. We often use filler words as a crutch to avoid silence. When you’re under pressure a pause can feel like an eternity, but it’s not. A pause after a point gets the attention of your audience and allows them to take in what you said. It also lets themto catch up with you and take a breath to get ready for your next idea.

Think before you speak.
Some researchers theorize that we blurt out answers to questions because when we were kids that’s what we did. We had to answer a question from an adult teacher or parent immediately, so we gave fast, unfiltered responses. As adults, we have to be more diplomatic and sometimes feel like we have to be perfect, so filler words appear.

To counter this, I coach my clients to do these three things, in this order: Pause. Think. Speak.

It may sound like I’m being funny or simplistic, but too many of us don’t do these. Most might skip a pause and start speaking while they are thinking, hoping that their minds catch up with their mouths. Then filler words appear.

This takes practice. Try this with someone you trust. Put your phone on record and have the person ask you any questions they want. Pause as long as you need to, think of your answer, then speak.

At first you may pause 30 or 40 seconds, but with practice your mind will adopt this discipline and over time you’ll only pause for a few seconds before you come out with a well-constructed sentence. Listen to the recordings to continue to improve.

Think about great public speakers who effectively use the pause. Atfirst it will seem awkward to pause. But using this method after a while will train your mind to follow this pattern and the pauses will grow shorter, the thinking will grow clearer (and faster), and your speaking will be stronger and more confident.

Talk about an object.
Another exercise I’ve used with success with my clients is to find an object wherever you are and talk about it for 30 seconds. Again, record yourself with your phone.

Try this: Spot a random object, like your computer mouse, and talk about it for 30 seconds. You can say whatever you want – but no filler words. If you have to pause, that’s okay, but keep talking about that thing. Keep doing that with other objects, too. You can do it in the office, at home, or anywhere. Listen to the recording and find where you’ve used the fillers. Keep practicing and you’ll notice your language will begin to flow more smoothly.

Now, be honest.
Are you prone to use filler words?

Or does someone you know use them and annoy you to no end? It takes courage to tell someone they suffer from filler-wordia.

There’s hope. We can all overcome our filler words with awareness and intentional practice. Give it a try and let me know how it works for you.

John Millen John Millen is a leadership and communication coach who writes a weekly newsletter called Sunday Coffee. This is his most recent article that is reprinted here with permission.  Email:


3 thoughts on “How to Stop the ‘Ums’ and ‘Uhs’

  1. Hello! My name is Angie Kraft, I am a senior this year at Southeast Missouri State University.My major is Public Relations, and I thought your tips were very helpful. As someone who struggles with “filler words,” this post was very spot on. Do you have any other techniques when is comes to being caught off guard during the interview process?

  2. Hello, John! My name is Janna Walker and I will be a senior studying PR at Southeast Missouri State University. I really enjoyed your article because I have a huge problem with using “uh” and “like” way too much when I speak. This actually came up in a nonverbal communication class that I took this past semester and I find it extremely interesting, partly because I relate to it so much. Your tips were awesome and I will keep them in mind. One question I have, though, is when speaking, whether it’s answering a question in an interview or in an everyday conversation, is part of the reason we use filler words because we are nervous? I know I’m guilty of it because I get nervous very easily, especially in an interview. You mentioned pausing as a tip, so how long of a pause should this be? Just to catch our breath and slow down? Or just to gather our thoughts?

  3. Hi Angie and Janna, If you don’t mind, I’ll answer your related questions in one response, as I assume you know one another.

    In an interview, the key is to prepare and rehearse your answers ahead of time. You no doubt know the five W’s and H journalist use. Use those to write down the questions you’ll get and then write down your best answers and practice giving them.

    Also, make them realistic and include the question you don’t want to be asked. Everyone has at least one of those and they sap our mental energy during the interview. Write down your best answer to get it out of your head.

    We do use filler words because we’re nervous or lacking confidence, but also they serve as a pause while we’re thinking of the answer. So, that’s where the pause and breath come in. Take as long as you need, usually a few seconds. But, of course, those few seconds will seem like an eternity. Just resist the urge to fill the vacuum because done right a pause can make you seem more thoughtful and confident.

    If you contact me through my website I’ll send you a Message Map form to use in planning your interview, or even important conversations. You can also sign up for my Sunday Coffee newsletter that covers these topics every week.

    Good Luck!

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