Whether it’s because you’re nervous, uncomfortable with silences or simply because it has become a habit, repeatedly saying “uhm” does everything but exude confidence. And if you don’t seem confident, how can your listener feel that you believe in what you’re saying? And if your listener feels that you’re not confident about your own message, he/she will become increasingly skeptical of whatever you say. Even worse, listeners may even start wondering if you’re lying to them.
Conversely, speaking in a nice flowing conversation stimulates the production of endorphin and dopamine – the “feel good” hormones – in the bodies of your listeners. By making your listeners feel good, they will be wanting to listen to you, and wanting to take on the message that you’re conveying to them.
So, in order to communicate effectively – whether it’s pitching your new prototype to investors or simply presenting your work to colleagues – you should always aim for flow in your speech. This way, your listeners will automatically feel that they can take your word for granted. You do this by simply saying what you want to say, and by not putting “uhms” between every so many words.
However, that’s easier said than done, so how do we go about changing this habit? Read along for 7 tips to help you better communicate!
Tip 1: Get to know your speaking pattern
Common moments for people to say “uhm” are:
- When switching between subjects
- When you’re asked a question
- Halfway or in between sentences
- When improvising
- When speaking from memory
Often this comes down to needing a moment to think about what you’re saying. If you’re in a conference or any other group conversation, taking a moment to think is often when other people take over the conversation. It is therefore not surprising that we make a habit of filling every silent moment with an “uhm” to let others know that we’re not done talking yet.
However, in order to get rid of your uhms, you first have to know when you say them. This starts with paying attention to your own way of talking. It also helps to ask people around you to help you with this, because we speak most of our uhms unconsciously.
Tip 2: Record yourself
Are you in the habit of preparing your presentations out loud? Then this is the perfect moment to record yourself to find out when you speak your uhms. So, when you hear yourself saying “uhm,” simply pause the recording and repeat the sentence without the “uhm” before you resume. Go through the entire presentation like this. This way you can analyze your speaking patterns and effectively recondition yourself.
In the beginning, it might feel uncomfortable to listen to yourself presenting or to even hear your own voice. However, this method is very effective, so try to focus on the improvement side of it. Meanwhile, don’t take yourself too serious, and try to have a laugh if you think that you sound ridiculous.
Tip 3: Pay attention to other people talking
When do the people around you say “uhm?” Paying attention to this helps you to pay attention to your own speech. In addition, it helps you realize when and why you find an “uhm” particularly annoying, which will help you to stay motivated to get rid of your own.
Tip 4: Make silences your best friend
Overtime, tip 1,2, and 3 should help you to become aware of your “uhms.” The next step is to take a moment of silence after you notice your uhms. This increases your awareness of them.
Eventually, this awareness will help you notice your uhms coming up when you’re about to speak it. Once you get to that point, take a breath instead of saying your “uhm,” so you can learn to get comfortable with a moment of silence.
Once you start becoming comfortable with your silences, you can even start using them strategically. Taking a moment of silence gives your listeners a moment to process what you just said, which automatically makes the last thing you said more significant. Especially in pitch and presentation form, a well-placed silence can work more magic than any word at that moment would!
Tip 5: Take it easy and breathe a little deeper
Often when we’re presenting or pitching, we fear that we’re going to forget something. This makes us nervous. And when we’re nervous, we tend to start thinking about the next sentence before we’ve finished the one we’re currently speaking. What happens is that we don’t forget the next sentence, but that we forget what we were saying at this moment. The result? We start to panic and say, “uhmm….”
Breathing deeper can help with this twofold.
- Breathing deeper forces you to consciously think about breathing and thus about what you’re doing at this very moment. In other words, it forces you to be in the moment, for a moment. This practice in and of itself helps you to keep your focus and stay with your words instead of running ahead in your mind.
- Breathing deeper activates your parasympathetic nervous system – the system that relaxes by lowering blood pressure, body temperature, and anxiety levels. The ideal breathing rate is 5.5 seconds in and 5.5 seconds out. If you can, breathe through your nose, but if that doesn’t work for you, you can slowly breathe through pursed lips as well.
Other breathing techniques that help you calm and focus your mind intense situations is what Navy Seals call “Box Breathing”: 4 seconds in, 4 seconds hold, 4 seconds out, 4 seconds hold. The longer you make your exhales while you shorten the final breath-hold (a 4-4-6-2 pattern, for example), the more calming the effect. This latter pattern works really well to fall asleep too.
Tip 6: “Cheat” your PowerPoint
Did you know that PowerPoint’s “presenter view” allows you to see your next slide in small beside the current slide on the computer screen that’s hooked up to the presentation screen? By using this setting, you can always reassure yourself by checking what you will talk about next. This way, you can put your racing mind at ease and nicely flow your communication from slide to slide.
Tip 7: Why so serious? Have a laugh!
We’re not just talking about communication here, this is about behavior change – and that’s hard! Especially when part of the change involves tempering your nerves, because that’s definitely something to get nervous about…
So, try to approach this fewer-uhms-practice in a lighthearted manner. Ask the people around you to notify you about your uhms with a ridiculous signal, for example, so you can both have a laugh whenever you make a “mistake.”
And concerning that last word, “mistake,” no progress has ever been made without mistakes. Mistakes are in fact what defines our humanity, because it means that we can act differently from what we intend to do. So, just embrace every “uhm-mistake” as a sign that you’re still human, after all.
Should I learn my presentations and pitches by heart?
This is a really personal manner; for some people it works, for some, it doesn’t. Personally, it’s not my style. I prefer to write the most important things out, and then condense them to keywords and sentences. This process forces me to really think about what’s important, which in and of itself helps me to remember it better.
The right words to describe that which I think is important, then, depend on the moment, the crowd, and the way I feel when I’m conveying my message. These factors are hard for me to anticipate, so I prefer to be open to interpreting them at the moment than learning my story by heart.
But that’s just me. I’ve heard brilliant presentations from people who crafted them word-for-word, and I’ve heard cleverly improvised presentations. Just do whatever feels comfortable for you, because that’s what will work best for you! Pitching and presenting is already uncomfortable enough as such…
Do all of my “uhms” have to leave?
Not necessarily, a well-placed uhm can actually be really beneficial in certain scenarios. For example, when you’re about to decline an invitation to a person standing in front of you, just plainly saying “no” as an answer can come off as rude. “Uhm,” and other filler words such as “well,” “you know,” and “kind of,” are often effective in coming across as more polite.
Moreover, British researcher Michael Handford explains that using such “filler words” actually demonstrate that you’re very conscious of who you’re talking to and that you’re taking their feelings into consideration.
So, play around with your uhms and not-uhms to find out what works for you. Sometimes your uhms can be strategically polite; sometimes they can be cute, and sometimes they are annoyingly unnecessary. You be the judge.