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How I learned to stop saying um


*Meme edition! ** Public speaking generally isn’t the most exciting subject, so enjoy some memes sprinkled throughout to drive home my points.

I am not a natural public speaker. Far from it.

My first time speaking in front of more than 10 people was a crash and burn of epic proportions.

I recall the organizer saying, it’s okay, Casey. (only my mother calls me Casey… so let that be an indication of how it went)

Trust me. That is never something you want to hear when addressing a larger crowd or group of people, whether in person or on the radio.

But that was the old me!

stop saying um - Talladega Nights

The new me is a confident speaker. I am fortunate to get paid to speak and am invited to be on the radio, TV, etc. But it wasn’t an easy climb.

Looking back, this change came about because of a one pretty simple change I made.

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stop saying um - Case speaing

It wasn’t some self-help book, a power stance or some self-affirmation mantra. It wasn’t some cool memorization technique or way to connect with an audience.

It was simply getting rid of the word um. I stopped saying um and totally removed it from my vocabulary.

Um has plagued me since I was young. Using it as a placeholder to avoid awkward silences, as a way to transition when speaking, or simply as a stalling tactic while I figured out what to say next, it is something I have always leaned on.

It’s just a bad habit, but what’s the deal?

What I didn’t realize was the limiting effect it was having not only on my speaking ability but even more so on my overall confidence. It wasn’t until two years ago when I was on a local Chicago radio station that I really came to realize this.

After the interview (which I thought went okay, but not great), I replayed the interview. Listening to that interview was the most cringe-worthy 30 minutes in recent memory. The sheer repetitiveness of um was almost comical. But, more than that, the more I used the word um, the more I came off as lacking confidence and teetering in delivery. Even when I wasn’t using um, this lasting effect still seemed to maintain its hold on me.

Using um was as much a cause of as it was an effect on my speaking woes. It was the output from my nerves and lack of confidence. It was also the habit that was reinforcing my nervousness. Round and round I went.

Um is an average word! It had to go!

Here are 6 ways I learned to stop saying um and how I became a more confident public speaker, motivator and salesperson.

1. Pump the breaks!

Slow down. This was and continues to be the most effective technique I have adopted.

stop saying um - slow down

I tend to naturally speak a mile a minute and public speaking only exacerbates this for me. If you are unsure how you are going to end your sentence, you are probably speaking too fast.

Slow down and formulate your words and sentences before mouthing them

Think about how slowly and methodically some of the most renowned public speakers go.

Obama is a great example. Think about how slowly and methodically he speaks.

2. Shh! Don’t say anything!

Have you ever been on a date and you both are still new and somewhat uncomfortable around each other that you dread silence and will do anything to fill that gap, no matter the topic?

It’s the same way with um. You are using it as a crutch to avoid a potential silence.

stop saying um - silence

Embrace the silence!

Instead of turning to your um crutch, simply say nothing at all. Pause and move on.

To me, a speaker who uses silence comes off as extremely confident and knowledgeable.

I know this is easier said than done as to you, silence will seem to last an eternity, but it doesn’t come off that way. Silence is a powerful tool in a speaker’s arsenal.

Associate your um with confidence.

“I’m am ummm not too sure how to begin this next sentence, but here I go anyway.”

Pause for a moment and proceed. Much better than um.

Even better than using pauses and spacing to simply take place of your um crutch, use this creative “white space” for emphasis and delivery.

Silence can be just as powerful as the words themselves. Use it to great effect.

My biggest piece of advice here is to not listen to the little voice in your brain that has been holding you back all along.

When you start replacing um with silence or start using silence for effect when speaking, you will start to hear that little voice chirping in your ear.

Say something you idiot! Everyone is staring at you!

Resist this. In fact, know that when you pause, people will pay even more attention to you. Their attention becomes cued up so you will have them hungry for what you have to say next.

Now deliver  it!

3. Join a club

I haven’t personally done this, but several of my sales colleagues and public speaker friends swear by it.

Join a local Toastmasters club, whose sole purpose is to help you strengthen your public speaking and leadership skills through group and one on one speaking exercises.

stop saying um - Toastmasters

No matter what you do for a living or your personality type, I have heard great things about these gatherings to help you improve your verbal and non-verbal communication skills, position, body language and speech planning.

4. Negative reinforcement

If you are still having a tough time totally removing um from your habits, implement a short term system to help your brain acknowledge when it reverts to its um crutch and to associate it with a negative reaction. Create a challenge for yourself to force yourself to stop using this crutch.

For example, practice talking to yourself. Out loud. For five minutes. About anything at all. Your goal? Just keep talking and don’t stop. If you say um, start over until you can talk for a full five minutes without reverting to your crutch.

stop saying um - remove bad habits

Another thing to do is to get a friend, spouse, etc in on the action. Whenever you say it in conversation with them, get then to call you out. Maybe have them repeat it over and over again like they are mocking you when you say it or simply have them bring it to your attention.

5. Eye contact instead

In my case, using um was a projection of my lack of confidence, either in my ability to present or simply the subject matter itself.

Instead of leaning on this crutch to compensate, turn to the biggest projection of confidence – eye contact.

stop saying um - eye contact

When you feel like saying um, make eye contact.

With this move, you are essentially countering the nervous habit head on and removing doubt from yourself and that of your listener.

You don’t need to maintain eye content for long, simply make the gesture, fill the the um space, and move on.

6. Read more

Lastly, read more!

This is the cure for a lot of things, but when it comes to using um in speech, its not always an indication of nervousness or a lack of confidence, it can simply be a reflection that you are not sure what word to use next or how to string together thoughts in your head.

The more you read, the more well-spoken you become. End of story.

Vocabulary. Syntax. Sentence flow.

These will all be improved with the more you read.

stop saying um - success


I’d love to hear about the ways you help your speaking skills. Email me case@prsuit.com

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No fluff or "pie in the sky inspiration." Just real stories.

Written by Case Kenny

Case is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of PRSUIT.com; Reach him at case@prsuit.com