“Um”. That tiny little word that constantly creeps into our sentences without us even realising it. Saying it at work can be a major issue for women – more so than men – that most of us are guilty of.
Using “ummms” can become an easy habit we use to fill gaps instead of taking a pause, that we can be completely unaware about. But it can take a lot away from a woman’s confidence, especially in meetings and presentations. It can make us look nervous and weak when we want to be coming across strong and able to deliver messages well to the point.
So why do we say it and how can we stop?
Actor and acting teacher at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), Sarah Woods, said saying “um” is largely a subconscious reaction.
“For some people, saying ‘um’ a lot can be a manifestation of nervousness or a lack of confidence. We’ve learnt it from those around us and then often it becomes habitual. Like many deeply formed habits, they are so physically ingrained, we do them automatically,” she said.
“I hear it a lot, and I know I do it to some extent too. I think a small amount of ‘umming’ and ‘erring’ is natural and not a problem. It’s just when it becomes extreme that it’s worth doing something about. You will appear more confident and it will probably follow that you feel more confident too.”
But don’t worry, every problem has a solution.
“First you have to make a firm decision to change,” Sarah said. “Listen out for the ‘ummers’ and ‘errers’. When you find one who has an extreme umming problem, notice how it interferes with their communication. And it certainly doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. (Although there are exceptions to the rule – Bob Hawke, for example). And listen out for those that don’t ‘um’. Notice how impressive they sound.”
“We have to work to make it conscious again. The simplest way is to slow down. When you feel you’re about to say ‘um’, just stop. Then search for the word you’re after silently. It can feel a little uncomfortable because there goes our time-buying trick. But if you diligently use this method every day, you should find that in a week or two you’re saying ‘um’ much less often. BUT make sure you don’t replace it with ‘like’ and ‘you know’!” she said.
It was recently pointed out to me that I was saying “um” a lot, which I was really surprised by, I was totally unaware of it. Ever since, I’ve made a huge effort to listen to myself when I’m speaking. I started keeping a tally in meetings of how often I would say it by subtly marking it at the top of the page. For every um I put a coin into a jar on my desk. I’ve cut it down drastically, from saying “um” about six times in a day to once or twice. It takes a real effort to change it but once you’re aware of the issue, it’s definitely achievable.
But why do we even say it at all?
Sarah said: “From a very early age we hear our parents and siblings doing it, later our friends and sometimes our teachers. We perceive that they are searching for the right words to express their thoughts and / or feelings. So we learn that vocalising the word ‘um’ is a recognisable signal to others that that is what we are doing. Possibly we are sometimes consciously letting others know we are searching for a word – buying a bit of time.”
To recap, you can stop saying “um” in four easy steps:
- Recognise the problem.
- Take note of those around you – do they say it or can they control it?
- Make an effort to stop saying it yourself.
- Keep track of how often you do it and try to minimise it as much as possible.
Do you notice yourself saying “um” all the time or just every now and then? Join me in putting a stop on the issue and to help women come across more confidently! You can start your own um jar to help and implement the advice from Sarah and I. Please share your thoughts in the comments below.