How to Banish the Dreaded "Um"

One of the most common questions I get asked is “How do I stop saying “um” during a presentation?”

Most of us use fillers like “um” and “ah.” They serve to buy time while we figure out what to say, and how to say it. It’s a habit that many of us developed long ago.

"Um” is the inevitable by-product of the human need to signal that we have something more to say.

While it's natural to throw in a few “ums” during conversational speech, they just don’t add value when things get a bit more formal. Fillers don't belong in formal presentations.


First of all, you don't need them. Your audience assumes you have something more to say, and the odds are good that you won't be interrupted when you are in front of the room. The exception to this is during Q&A, but skilled presenters can handle questions without using "um" to buy time.

Second, your audience will associate too many fillers with a lack of confidence. Worse still, the fillers "like" and "you know" may convey inexperience or immaturity.

Watch out for highfalutin fillers!

I once had a boss who said "at the end of the day" all the time. Like my former boss, clever speakers have learned to replace “um” with fillers that sound impressive. “For all intents and purposes” and "as a general matter" fall into this category. These and other "fancy" fillers don't pull their weight, and shout be cut.

Breaking the filler-word habit takes some practice, but it can be done.

As you practice your delivery, notice where you have the urge to use a filler word or phrase. This usually happens during transitions, and right before you answer questions.

It's harder to stop doing something than it is to replace it with something new. I’d like to suggest that instead of “um” or “you know,” you try this:

Pause. Think. Speak.

Pause: Allow yourself to take a couple of seconds to think about what you want to say. This pause serves two important purposes: it will help you begin powerfully, and it will help you avoid using filler words.

Think: What’s the bottom line? Start with that. What is at the heart of what you want to say?

Speak: Come out with the bottom line first, and then fill in the details.

It may feel unnatural to pause, think and then speak, but do it anyway. Most “ums” and other fillers signal that you are speaking before you’ve given yourself time to think.

Say what you mean, with a few well-chosen words, and your audience will love you for it.



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