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.
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