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Um… how can we reduce ums in our speech?

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Expert
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As instructors, almost all of us are public speakers. We pay a lot of attention to our content, but how much do we pay attention to how we are presenting our content?

Um, if we, um, had as many ums in our written work as we sometimes, um, have in our speech, our writing would, um, be difficult to read. The occasional um is not a problem. In fact, the occasional um works as an attention-getting signal telling us something important is coming. Having ums sprinkled throughout can improve memory for your content (Fraundorf & Watson, 2011). Having too many ums, though, is like highlighting every word in written text. If everything is signaled as important, then nothing is. Frequent ums can be distracting. You don’t want your listeners to start focusing on your ums and stop focusing on your message.

Reduce the ums through behavioral change

Record your next lecture, or maybe just the first 10 minutes of it. An audio recording using your phone will work. On playback, listen for your ums. How many are there? If there are just a few in that 10-minute recording, you probably don’t need to do anything differently.

If you’re hearing dozens, you may decide it's time to work on um-reduction.

When are your ums most likely to occur? At the beginning of sentences? As you switch from one topic to another? When responding to student questions? Now that you know when you are most likely to utter an um, you’ll be more likely, during your next lecture, to recognize that an um may be coming on. Your goal at this point is to pause—stop cold. Pausing will interrupt the automatic um. Savor the silence; skip the um. Then speak.

If you struggle with the silence, increasing the number of hand gestures you use also may help you decrease your ums (Christenfeld, Schachter, & Bilous, 1991). Don’t get too carried away though. Rapid, random, hand flapping would probably be just as distracting.

 

References

Christenfeld, N., Schachter, S., & Bilous, F. (1991). Filled pauses and gestures: It’s not coincidence. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 20(1), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01076916

Fraundorf, S. H., & Watson, D. G. (2011). The disfluent discourse: Effects of filled pauses on recall. Journal of Memory and Language, 65(2), 161–175. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jml.2011.03.004

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology in community colleges since 1992, and has been at Highline College in the Seattle area since 2001. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award . She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed.