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A free E-zine from Communication Excellence Institute, dedicated to improving communication in the professional workplace.

Here at CEI, we’re excited about sharing still more practical information about good communication. Hope you’ll continue to follow our People Skills for Skilled People articles and give us feedback on how they’ve helped you.

Jan and I encounter many professionals who are seriously challenged in giving presentations. They may need guidance on effective body language, strong vocal impact, persuasive executive presence, and other aspects of skillful presentations. These professionals are highly developed individuals. That’s why it can come as such a surprise when they exhibit a certain habit that really undercuts their credibility. Like them...

Are You Suffering from an Uh-Diction?
Vol. 9, No. 2

If you have a case of the “Uhs” as a speaker, it’s probably not news to you. Yet I remember a speaker Jan and I heard a while back, who didn’t seem to have a clue about his “Uh-diction.” This gentleman is regarded as one of the most informed knowledgeable administrators in the community college world. In this capacity, he was asked to present to a large audience of peers as an after-lunch speaker. This is never the optimal venue for a person with a terminal case of the “Uhs.”

Jan and I had just finished a sumptuous lunch and, like the rest of the attendees, were quite satisfied. You can guess the rest. EVERYBODY was nodding off, looking at their smartphones, or otherwise trying to stay awake. What made this nearly impossible was that the speaker began each sentence (usually also quite lengthy) with a sonorous

“Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh …”

Think of a large animal groaning in its final death throes, and you’ll get the approximate idea of what this sounded like. Add to that, a stereotypical pontificating professorial manner, and you have a recipe for ”Uh-ter” boredom.

To stay awake, Jan and I agreed to count the number of “Uhs” the speaker demonstrated. By the time we quit in frustration and the speech was only half over, we had counted 144 instances.

We’re certain that the speaker who delivered this talk is a truly dedicated champion of community college education. The problem is that this soporific habit flies in the face of his positive committed message. The rule in nonverbal communication (and “Uhs” and “Ums” are some of the most common nonverbal errors) is that when a person’s nonverbal communication contradicts the words, we believe the body and the voice, not the words.

Nonverbally, “Uhs” and “Ums” send some unfortunate messages. Among them are:

  • Lack of self-confidence
  • Lack of comfort with the audience
  • Lack of preparation or comfort with the subject matter
  • Lack of energy
  • Lack of commitment
  • Mental disorganization
  • Nervousness

No one in their right mind would want to give an impression of any of these qualities! Unfortunately, many of us do this more than we’d like.

At its core, using “Uh” is just a bad verbal habit. As it has been said, it’s hard to stop a bad habit by willpower, but much easier to stop it by replacing it with a good habit or habits. Another way to phrase this is to set up certain circumstances or conditions that preclude the use of “Uh” and build greater verbal fluency and impact. That’s what we’ll demonstrate in the rest of this article. But first,

Why do we say (and hear) “Uh” and “Um” so often?

The main reason we use and hear these particles so often is that we’ve had many speech models before us who have used them. So why did they use them? Here are the conditions that encourage the use of “Uh” and “Um”:

First, our culture emphasizes the value of speaking way more than listening. We value generating rhetoric more than assimilating it. This attitude leads us to believe that we’re only adding value when we’re vibrating the airwaves. So … we speak in vocalized pauses. Since silence is not golden anymore, we feel awkward pausing during the flow of speech. We subtly fear that if we don’t keep the airwaves moving, we’ll lose our audiences’ attention. By uttering “uh” or “um” to link one sentence to the next, it’s almost like we’re saying to our audience, “Don’t tune out! There’s more coming … honest!”

Second, our role models have most often spoken in very long sentences without pausing between the end of one and the beginning of another. This is where “Uh” rears its ugly head the most. Good oral English is delivered mostly in quite short sentences. “Do you believe me?” “You should.” “Still not convinced?” “Check these out!” Many times, an oral sentence even omits a standard subject and predicate. Effective oral English is also noted for pauses between sentences. The pausing, when not vocalized, adds drama and emphasis to what you’re saying, increasing comprehension and emphasizing the speaker’s commitment. When the pauses themselves are full of energy, your audience will stay right with you.

What are some cures for the “Uhs” and “Ums”?

Cure #1: Speak with high energy!

High performative energy covers a multitude of sins in public speaking. High energy correlates to higher volume, which then connotes high credibility and high commitment to the topic as well as the audience.

Roger Ailes, in his book You Are The Message, states that audiences will forgive a speaker for almost any fault except one: the lack of commitment. Many low-energy speakers, the most common users of “Uh” and “Um”, are actually highly committed to their topics, but because of their more subdued demeanor, they convey the opposite impression. This is a terrible shame since such people most always have a great deal of value to offer audiences.

For more information on the topic of energy, please click on this link:
“Knock ‘Em Dead with Performative Energy”

Cure #2: Finish speaking the sentence you’re on before thinking about what you’re going to say next.

Trying to think of your next sentence before finishing the one you’re on is one of the biggest causes of “Uhs.” You’d think it would be just the opposite, but because you’re trying to hold two sentences in mind at the same time, you will invariably say “Uh” between them. “Uh,” in its essence, is a substitute for a pause while your mind is racing for the next sentence. The truth is that if you speak (and pause) with high energy, your audience will stick with you through virtually any length of pause. In your wonderful silent pause, your mind can clearly find the words for the next sentence without the droning interference of “uh” or “um.”

Cure #3: Speak in short bursts, and use definitive downward inflection as often as you can.

As we mentioned earlier, oral English is delivered in short sentences (of typically 5-8 words each). Watch how you end each sentence. If you finish a sentence with downward inflection, indicating definitiveness and confidence, you will be very unlikely to follow with an “uh” or “um.” Tentative endings to sentences set up the conditions for “uh-diction” to flourish. Example: “You might want to think about tackling this another way” (with downward inflection on “way”) sets you up for a good silent pause after the final word of the sentence. If you were to say the same sentence tentatively, with upward inflection on “way,” such as “You might want to think about tackling this another way?” you’ve set up all the conditions for the following pause to be vocalized with “uh” or “um” continuing the tentative tone. End most of your sentences with downward inflection, and you’ll be well on your way to extinguishing “Uhs and “Ums”.

Cure #4: Have each sentence make a clear point by REALLY stressing a key word or words.

The reason we hate long drawn-out phrasing is that we can’t easily discern the main message the speaker is trying to convey. Here’s where emphasizing key words can do the job. English is a stress- and short-sentence-based language. Look at the different messages conveyed in each of these examples:

“Our business goals have been vague for a long time.” (No particular emphasis on any part of this idea)
“Our business GOALS have been vague for a long time.” (as opposed to practices, values, etc.)
“Our BUSINESS goals have been vague for a long time.” (as opposed to social, etc.)
“Our business goals have been VAGUE for a long time.” (as opposed to defined, clarified, etc.)
“Our business goals have been vague for a LONG time.” (emphasizing the urgent need to take action to update them)

You, the speaker, are the one who decides which of these emphases communicates the principal idea you want to convey.

For more information on short sentences, pausing, and hitting key words, click on the following PSSP links:

RSVP: How to Turn a Boring Speaker into an Interesting Speaker in Ten Minutes or Less
The Power of the Pause

Cure #5: Use vivid words that evoke strong sensory images

Most of us are visual thinkers. Use one- or two-syllable words in most of your speaking. “Stop” has more impact than “desist.” “Get it?” has more punch than “Do you understand?” “The overall trend in business growth is down” is less impactful than “Business is tanking.”

Cure #6: Frame your talk using a narrative format or concrete examples.

Most boring talks contain too many generalities. Audiences won’t remember them, but they will remember points when portrayed in a story format. Stories totally capture an audience’s attention, and give you a track to run on that virtually precludes “Uh” and “Um”.

When trying to construct your talk, as much as possible, try to deliver it in narrative format. The best way to do that is to answer the following questions:

  • When in time did your example happen?
  • Where did it happen?
  • Who was involved?
  • What was the chain of events?
  • How did it turn out?
  • Why is this example important? What point does it make?

If the narrative is your story—something that actually happened to you—then you know it better than anyone else. You will not feel the need to say “um” at all because you’ll be in the action of the story.

Cure #7: Take your time!

When you’re speaking in any context, but especially in public,” S-L-O-W  D-O-W-N! Most new or inexperienced speakers begin their talks at too fast a rate. They often sound like this:


You’d think that speaking like this would eliminate “Uhs” and “Ums”, but the opposite is true. Speaking rapidly like this can, if nothing else, drain your supply of air, producing that awful “Uh” sound.

NOTE: This kind of opening for a talk has another drawback. Rushing like this sends the message “I’d rather be anywhere else than here giving this speech, and I can’t wait till it’s over so I can get the heck out of here!” What we say at the beginning of a talk carries way more impact than what we say anywhere else later on. Also, the audience is trying to tune to you during those initial moments. Speaking too rapidly there can turn them off to you.

If you’re a victim of the “Uhs” and “Ums”, now is the time to act. Don’t wait for peers to count how many “U-m/hs” you crank out, or put a nickel in a jar for each one you’re caught committing. Instead, practice the cures above, and most of all, keep in mind how important eliminating “Uhs” and “Ums” is for conveying your fluency, credibility, and commitment to your subject and audience.

Yours in good communication,

Janet & Neal Palmer


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