How to Stop Saying “Um” in Presentations (What to Do Instead)

by Janice Tomich

One question I’m often asked as an executive public speaking coach is how to stop the habit of using filler words while delivering presentations or talking with colleagues.

The people asking me how to stop saying um are usually people who have taken Toastmasters’ rule about errant ums and ahs to heart.

My response? When we communicate in everyday conversation, it’s natural to use a few vocal fillers like these.

It’s weird (and unnatural) to not use a few, occasionally.

However, overusing vocal fillers can be a distraction and will bruise your credibility.

Why Do We Use Vocal Fillers?

Vocal fillers, or vocal disfluencies, are a break in fluid conversation. You might find yourself using filler words for a number of reasons:

  • Nervousness
  • Being unfocussed or distracted
  • When using unfamiliar concepts or words
  • If you’re talking too quickly.

Your brain works in retrieval mode and offers out ums or ahs to fill the time until you regulate yourself or are able to retrieve the concepts and find that ‘just right’ word you’re trying to remember.

Fillers are verbal crutches that give your brain an opportunity to gather your thoughts and get back on track.

Examples of Common Filler Words

We’ve all heard them. We all use them.

  • Um
  • Ah
  • Like
  • So
  • You know
  • Sorry
  • Actually
  • Okay
  • Right?
  • I mean.

When Is Using a Filler Word or Two Not a Problem?

Vocal dysfluency is not a problem when it’s infrequent and happens as often as it would in the natural rhythm of relaxed conversation.

We expect to hear vocal fillers and would find it odd to not hear or use them in day-to-day conversation.

There are very few people who are able to communicate without incorporating a few ums or ahhs.

​​Do you need help communicating confidently?
You don’t have to figure it out on your own.

If you’re feeling unheard or misunderstood, I can help.

When Do Filler Words Become Problematic?

Woman speaking to a colleague looking distressed,  which often prompts people to overuse vocal fillers.

Filler words only become a problem when they are used excessively, because overuse can make you appear unprepared and/or unrehearsed. Your credibility will suffer when you stall and try to articulate words that don’t flow easily off of your tongue.

To be confident in your words, and how you deliver them, you have to be polished and at ease.

Here are 10 tips to help you stop overusing vocal fillers. These are especially helpful if you’re practicing for an upcoming public speaking event.

Ten Tips to Stop Using Vocal Fillers

1. Be Patient

Be patient and forgiving with yourself. Eliminating vocal fillers entirely is unachievable—and not even desirable. Expect that you will still use a few filler words in your speech. If you are someone who relies on crutch words and filler wounds a lot, consider your objective to be to eradicate the majority of them, not to completely obliterate them.

2. Awareness

If you have trouble separating your ego from critique, creating a space for self awareness can be challenging. However, it’s worth it. Really and truly seeing yourself and how you communicate requires putting on an analyst’s hat and looking at your own communication habits objectively.

Often we are so hard on ourselves that all we see is the mistakes. Take the time to see both what you did well – where the cadence of your words moves fluidly (and you know will inspire your audience) and where you need improvement – where you stumbled and used ums and ahhs.

3. Focus on Your Audience

audience member with hands in the air, clearly being influenced by the message being expressed

To understand your audience you have to listen…really listen.

Strategically create your messaging, understanding what will help influence/persuade your audience because thinking solely focussed on yourself leads to presentation nerves and anxiety and gives the ums and ahhs an opportunity to take hold.

When you focus on the needs of your audience and deliver a message to be of service, it will take the pressure off of you and stop your use of vocal fillers in its tracks.

4. Rehearse

I’ve never had a client circle back after a speech or presentation telling me they wished they had practiced less.

Knowing what you’re about to say next reduces vocal fillers. Enlist a colleague or professional and rehearse your presentation or speech so they can provide real time feedback. With caution though.

Ensure that those you ask to help you have the experience to provide valuable feedback.

5. Audio or Video Recordings

A women recording her voice

Listen to an audio or video recording of yourself to identify when you tend to overuse vocal fillers. Try to get to the bottom of your own habits. Where my clients often get stuck is not in the recording of themselves but actually watching or listening to the recording. This is where you need to humbly and objectively step back to gain valuable insight.

Loom is a terrific software tool to record your practices. It’s an easy software to learn that provides an area for comments. My clients first critique their recordings using the Loom platform and then send the recording to me for my feedback.

Watching and listening to a recording of yourself provides insight that practicing in the theatre of your mind can’t.

Now that you’ve identified where you’re using too many filler words (by analyzing your recorded practices) you’ve built some awareness of where you’re getting tripped up. With this awareness and when you arrive at the challenging spots, slow your pace down and take a deep, belly breath.

6. Replace Your Filler Word with A Silent Pause

Clients often tell me how difficult this is because they feel like the time to take a deep breath is long. If you’re standing in front of an audience sharing your ideas, it does seem like a long time. The time seems protracted. For the audience it is simply a second or two. A welcomed one, giving them time to distill your messaging.

When you feel an um or an ahh about to leave your lips, stop yourself. Take a breath to gather your thoughts and then continue with your next words/thoughts. This technique takes a bit of practice to get comfortable with the silence. It’s worth it because it will move you from a C-level speaker to one who appears polished.

7. Have a Drink of Water

a glass filled with water

Another way to tame your ums and ahs is with a sip of water. Make sure to have water close at hand and if you find yourself struggling for your next words take a drink or two, not only to quench your thirst (lubricate dry mouth) but also quench your mind.

The few seconds it takes to drink will give you space to gather your thoughts.

8. Refer to Your Notes

Similar to taking a sip of water to bide some time, referring to your notes does the same. No matter the length of your message it’s natural to gather your thoughts.

Referring to your notes is a great foil for pausing and regulating your need for vocal fillers.

“Janice gave me the words and the practice to hold my own as I worked through tough business negotiations. I learned how to speak up for myself in a powerful, persuasive way that was true to who I am. ”

​​​​Margarita Quihuis
ESG Advisor, ED: Peace Innovation Institute, The Hague Peace Innovation Lab Stanford

Find your voice…
(info on communication coaching package)

9. Plan Your Transitions

Although I’m not a fan of memorizing presentations, it is sound practice to chunk out your content and know when you will be transitioning from concept to concept.

When you plan out your transitions beforehand, you’ll be able to smoothly move from one idea to the next and won’t rely on fillers.

10. Calm Yourself

Woman who appears calm, which is the state of mind you want to be in when presenting.

Although many people will tell you they have a fear of public speaking, what is actually at the core is their fear of anxiety or nerves taking over.

Nerves and anxiety do exacerbate your need to rely on filler phrasing. Being in a state of angst while presenting in front of an audience will have your heart beating fast and have you lose your train of thought.

Many techniques that seem too simple to work actually do work. It’s a matter of stopping yourself when you feel anxious, grappling for the right word, to implement your anxiety/nerve regulating techniques.

Nerve busting techniques do require practice before your live event so that you know how and when to use them as well as being able to execute good technique.

Taking a deep breath is the top go-to anxiety reducing technique I use myself and recommend to my clients. Yes, as simple as breathing. It’s actually not. You need to catch yourself and be aware when your emotions are getting the better of you and your anxiety is climbing. And when you do, take a deep breath.

Not a deep breath high up in your chest (which is a common mistake), but a deep breath way down low in your belly. It’s crucial, too, that your exhale is longer than your inhale. It’s on the exhalation that your heart rate will slow.

I have been the guinea pig myself using a number of anxiety quelling techniques that I have researched. I use my smartwatch to monitor my heart rate which drops during execution. Not only do I prove to myself the techniques do work but that substantiation also gives me confidence they will work when I’m live on stage. My clients will tell you the same.

If the feedback you receive is that you rely too heavily on ums and ahs…so much so that it’s distracting…practice a few of my ten tips to help you communicate fluidly and with ease.

Do You Need Help with Your Communication Skills? Do Your Messages Fall Flat?

Well honed communication skills are your most valuable asset. But when you’re on your own without professional feedback it can be challenging. If you’re stuck on how to clearly communicate your message, book a 1-hour presentation strategy session with me. I’ll help you get on track to communicate well with your peers and colleagues.

If you need support to create a presentation from scratch, I can help you with that too -> Prepare For Your Upcoming Presentation, Speech, or Talk.

Share this post:


Related Posts


Give the keynote. Without the nerves.

Get your free copy of Speak Up. You’ll also get emails which will change how you think and feel about public speaking. Read them in 3 minutes or less.