Um's and Uh's: Eliminating Verbal Filler When Presenting

I have seen many presentations in my life, and one really bad habit that I have seen afflict presenters of all ages and experience levels are verbal fillers like Um and Uh. These little devils can find their way into every nook and cranny of your speech. Often people will not notice them directly, but if they hear a presentation with many of them and then listen to a presentation with none or only a handful, subconsciously they will hear a BIG difference.

Some argue that they say um and uh because they haven't sufficiently practiced the material. While I think there is some merit to this argument, I do not believe this is the primary reason that people say these fillers. I believe it is first and foremost simply a bad habit. I have seen people who have practiced a presentation many times and who are experts in their field regarding the topic they are presenting (so lack of knowledge is not an excuse) inject their presentations with hundreds of um's and uh's (yes, I've counted).

I believe that eliminating this bad habit is easier than it seems at first, especially if you're willing to put even the smallest amount of effort into stopping it. One way to help yourself eliminate this habit is to ask others to count the number of uh's and um's (and other filler words) that you say when you present. This may seem like a burden, but it's actually easy and in some ways fun for the people doing it (it's always easier to be a critic than a presenter - but that's a topic for another post). Try it yourself on someone else's presentation, and you'll see. If you do count someone's verbal fillers, I have found the best approach is to lightheartedly ask them after the presentation (and away from other people) if they would like to know how many Um's you counted. This engages their curiosity and makes it less of a big deal. This approach isn't perfect, but it is much better than going up to them and saying "You had 235 Um's in your presentation. You suck."

The first time someone informed me of how many uh's and um's filled my presentation was in 2005. I had just finished giving my first practice run of a training class that I would give to astronauts and flight controllers as part of the Training Division as NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX. My instructors, who were all certified instructors in the Training Division and had taught many astronauts in their careers, were merciless in their feedback on all aspects of my practice run, from the technical content to my delivery of that content. "Stop jiggling your leg." "Why are you looking all over the place instead of at your audience?" "You said um X hundred times. Cut that out!" It didn't take me long to cut out those um's after that.

Another way to help yourself eliminate verbal fillers is to record yourself on video. This is the most painful but effective way to help not only reduce this bad habit, but all other elements of your presentation style as well. If you don't watch video of yourself to get direct feedback on your actions, which is what most professional athletes do, you will be hard pressed to achieve speaking skills above a certain level.

Using these tips, you should be able to eliminate (or almost eliminate) verbal fillers from your presentations. Once you do, you will find that your message comes across much cleaner and more forcefully. And at the very least you won't have people like me counting your um's anymore.