How to Stop Saying “Um,” “Ah,” and “You Know”

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Noah Zandan for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit: Emma Innocenti/Getty Images
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When we find ourselves rattled while speaking — whether we’re nervous, distracted, or at a loss for what comes next — it’s easy to lean on filler words. These may give us a moment to collect our thoughts before we press on, and in some cases, they may be useful indicators that the audiee should pay special attention to what comes next. But when we start to overuse them, they become crutches — academics call them disfluencies — that diminish our credibility and distract from our message.

Using research that incorporates behavioral science, AI, and data, the people science firm I run, Quantified Communications, determined that the optimum frequency is about one filler per minute, but the average speaker uses five fillers per minute — or, one every twelve seconds.

So let’s take a look at what the data tells us about crutch words: how they jeopardize a speaker’s impact and how we can eliminate them from our vocabularies.

The Trouble with Crutch Words

We know it’s hard to pay attention to a speaker when every third word is a filler, but it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly how those verbal crutches are affecting our experience. We analyzed over 4,000 spoken communication samples in our database to identify how much speakers are relying on filler words and how those words are affecting the way their audiences perceive them. While we found that the excessive use of fillers can negatively influence audiences in many ways, three critical factors are significantly negatively correlated with too many fillers.

  1. To get your message across effectively, you have to keep your audience engaged. When you use excessive fillers, audiences are less likely to hang onto your every word because the fillers get in the way of the emotional stories or fascinating research you’re trying to share.
  1. Audiences want to believe that you are acting and speaking naturally — the way you might in a one-on-one conversation. While of course most people use fillers in casual conversation, when you bring them with you to the microphone, they distract from your core personality and make you sound nervous, distracted, or disengaged rather than authentic.
  1. If you want your audience to buy into your message, you have to make it clear, logical, and easy to follow. Unfortunately, filtering through crutch words to catch the important parts requires more cognitive effort than audiences are willing to put forth. So too many fillers will likely mean they’ll tune out in favor of an easier cognitive task —such as thinking about their to-do lists.

So why isn’t our speech fluent? Studies suggest that we verbalize hesitations because we’ve been conditioned to fill the void even when we don’t have something to say. For example, we use “um” and “ah” to hold onto the “conversational floor” as we are planning what we are going to say next, with “ah” signaling a short delay and “um” signaling a longer delay

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Noah Zandan is the CEO and Co-Founder of Quantified Communications, a firm that combines data and behavioral analytics to help people measure and strengthen the way they communicate. Quantified Communications works globally with leaders of corporations, government organizations, higher education institutions, sales teams, nonprofits, and hundreds of TED speakers.


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