“Er” and “Um”: Banish filled pauses to improve your communication

It’s not just, er, what you have to say; how you, um, say it matters too. While it’s painful to read written language containing “er”, “um” and “uh” (collectively known as filled pauses), their use in spoken communication is commonplace and subconsciously undermines the messages received by listeners. If you’ve never considered this before, you’ll now notice it everywhere, from radio presenters to work colleagues, and you’ll almost certainly be using “ers”, “ums” and “uhs” in your own speech. If you can stop yourself from doing this, your communication skills – critical for any good User Experience designer – will be elevated considerably.

Why do people say “Er” and “Um”?

The leading theory as to why people say “er” and “um” comes from Mark Liberman, Professor of Linguistics at University of Pennsylvania. He conducted a study of filled pauses and concluded that people tend to use “um” when they’re trying to decide what to say, and “er/uh” when they’re trying to decide how to say it.

Liberman transcribed 14,000 phone conversations from 12,000 speakers across the US and found that the use of “er/uh” and “um” can reveal the speaker’s gender, language skills and life experience. He told the Atlantic: “As people get older, they have less trouble deciding what to say [because they know more stuff], and more trouble deciding how to say it [because they know more words and fixed phrases, and so have a harder time making a choice].”

How would not saying “Er” or “Um” make me a better communicator?

By never saying “um”, listeners will believe that you always know what you are about to say. This conveys an air of experience and reassures the listener that you know your subject matter well.

By never saying “er/uh”, listeners will believe you always know how to say what you want to say. You’ve said this before. You must be an expert. Your language skills are strong. It also puts listeners at ease. Naturally, people want to help when they hear “er/uh”. Their brain starts thinking about what specific word or expressions you could be searching for and in doing so, they stop actively listening to the whole message – or even interject with their suggestions (often unhelpfully).

How do I stop saying “Er” and “Um”?

It takes conscious effort to overcome any bad habit, and this is will be no different. You need to start consciously listening to your own voice as you speak. Any time you find yourself saying “er/uh” or “um”, raise a red flag in your mind. You will quickly find you can identify when you are about to say “uh/er/um” and that means you can take action to stop yourself. This process is made much easier if you slow down your talking speed.

A common tactic that speakers adopt, often subconsciously, is to talk fast. This is especially noticeable in group discussions where the speaker may talk fast for fear of being interrupted before they have concluded their message. In fact, this has the opposite effect of exciting others in the group, raising the collective tempo and making it more likely that others will quickly interject, interrupt and talk over. Slow. It. Down. Talking slowly will give your brain time to chose concise words and phrases, often meaning you can convey your message in less time and in a clearer manner than you would have done by talking faster. It will also reduce interruptions from all but the rudest of collaborators.

Now that you’ve identified your ‘ers’ and ‘ums’, what do you say instead? As you progress, there’s a rich arsenal of conjunctive words you can utilise to enhance your message. But begin by replacing your filled pauses with silence. Silence is powerful, engaging and easy. As you practice listening to yourself talking and slowing your speech, you will soon find you can control silences to become so short as to be unnoticeable, or held for a long, dramatic effect.

Of course, what you actually say next will confirm or quash your listeners expectations, but you’re setting yourself up to, er, succeed.

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