There are three words undermining your impact when used in a meeting, conversation, presentation, or email. They are words we use all the time, which could be destroying your career and leadership impact.
Those three words are, “um”, “er”, and “uh”. Have you ever found yourself in a meeting where you’re um-ing, err-ing, and uh-ing all over the place? It happens! The good news is you’re not alone in this experience.
I started my career working at Harvard University in the development office. I was surrounded by brilliant and accomplished alumni and colleagues. There were so many reasons and opportunities to be intimidated. As a 22-year-old right out of college, my heart raced any time someone asked my opinion. Every sentence included several ums, errs, and uhs.
My bosses in my first job were amazing women – those we all wanted to emulate. They gave me feedback that most of my sentences were filled with these empty words. When the time came to consider me for promotion, they shared I needed to come across as more confident in my interactions with people around the University and our alumni. I needed to speak with conviction and not demonstrate doubt. Sound familiar?
So, how do you speak with more confidence and conviction? Once I became aware of how often I used empty words, I felt myself using them even more. More than 20 years later, I now know this is a common bad habit – and not an easy one to fix. However, over time, with perseverance, empty words can be eliminated.
These empty words consistently showed up with a client of mine – we’ll call her Jackie (of course, not her real name). Just as I struggled years ago, Jackie found herself not being able to influence her coworkers. Her great ideas were often seized by her colleagues without giving her credit. When meeting with clients, they would often look to other colleagues when asking a question, even though she was the expert in the room. In one of her performance reviews, she was told, “You just don’t have that fire in your belly that we need to see in leadership roles.”
It was a punch in the gut – and a wake-up call. She spent the next year working with me to get out of her own way. She dialed into herself, found opportunities to speak confidently with conviction. Any opportunity she had, whether it was one-on-one, at a conference, at a board meeting, or at a networking event, she was prepared to speak with conviction while still staying humble and open-minded.
Jackie focused on these five tactics:
1. Slow down. Slow down your breathing and your body. Give your brain a second to catch up with your mouth. Using empty words is a sign your brain is thinking about what it wants to say next or rephrasing something you just said. It is trying to catch up with your mouth. When you slow down, you will notice the individuals, circumstances, meetings, and situations where you’re umming and uhing. When your thoughts and your mouth are operating at the same pace, you won’t need to um and uh. When you slow your pace, even slightly, you can be thoughtful about the words you’re using. We really need to do this in all aspects of life!
2. Focus on your body. Rub the tips of your thumb and middle finger together. Try it now. Do you notice the softness or dryness of your skin? Do it slowly and deliberately. This movement can be done without anyone noticing, under a table at a meeting, or out of sight of a Zoom call. This motion slows the mind-chatter and allows you to focus on what you’re saying, on your audience, and the environment around you.
3. Prepare. You may be the kind of person who writes out what she wants to say in advance. Or you may be the kind of person who has a few bullet points as reminders and idea prompts. Anticipate the questions or obstacles you may receive. What could your audience object to or want more clarity about that’s relevant to what you want to say? When you are truly prepared, you will be less tempted to undermine yourself with um’s, uhh’s, and err’s.
Also, know it’s okay to pause a conversation and continue it later. If someone pushes back or asks you a question which you can’t answer, it’s okay to say, “That’s a great point. Let me research this. I will pull some data together and come back to you tomorrow morning.” If you are specific about when you’re going to follow up with them, people tend to be okay with the pause.
4. Be okay with silence. This is a hard one. Try it next time you’re in conversation. When someone asks you a question, even if you know the answer, try pausing and counting slowly to six. Try counting the way kids do playing hide and seek: one, 1,000, two, 1,000, three, 1,000, etc. It seems like an eternity, but it’s not. It’s okay as you’re answering a question to pause in the middle of your answer to allow an idea to sink in. It shows confidence in what you’re sharing, the content, the message, the learning, the data, the stories. It does not demonstrate weakness. Rather, it demonstrates conviction in what you’re saying.
5. WAIT. Why Am I Talking? If you cannot speak with conviction and certainty with your words, don’t speak. We’re building on what our grandmothers shared with us. If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Silence is okay. If you’re not prepared, if you can’t speak slowly or have your thoughts delivered with conviction, don’t speak!
When we speak, we are not only keeping track of the content we are sharing, but also the interaction with our audience. According to the National Center for Voice and Speech, the average words per minute speaking rate for English speakers in the U.S. is about 150 wpm. During presentations, 100 – 150 wpm is a comfortable pace. In a conversation, 120 – 150 wpm is comfortable. These are situations where we want to ensure we are heard and understood.
With a year of perseverance and focus, my client Jackie returned to her performance review prepared to ask for a leadership role. She remained focused, slightly slowed her pace, and was comfortable during the moments of silence. Jackie spoke with conviction. Through several conversations, Jackie influenced her leaders to create a new leadership role for her.
People often ask me why I focus so intently on this. Does it really have that much of an impact? Well, that depends. Do you want to influence those around you? If the answer is yes, then yes it does have a great impact.
I realized this early on, in elementary school. My family had recently moved to Paris, and I had just started first grade. Although as a six-year-old it is much easier to pick up a foreign language than as an adult, I still needed to think hard for each word that left my mouth. There was little bandwidth for um’s and uh’s as I thought of the next word. I was already at risk of losing my audience, given that I was the new American in Paris. The French speak at a fast pace. I had to learn the language and pace, or I would have been left out of recess games, which to most six years olds is the main focus and priority.
So, what is your recess equivalent today?
If you find yourself using, or heard feedback that you use, empty words, slow down and question why you’re doing this. Are you pausing to gather your thoughts? Has your confidence taken a dip? Are you intimidated – like I was early in my career – by other people in the room? Why are you hesitating with your words?
Try these tactics: Slow down, prepare your thoughts in advance, and be okay with silence. Who is going to be your accountability partner? Find one or two people right now to let them know you are working on changing this behavior. Record yourself speaking and review where and how you are uhh-ing, umm-ing, and err-ing. Give yourself time to change this behavior. Do it consistently for at least 21 days before you notice a sustained change. Remember, it took my client Jackie almost a year!
If you need support to dig into why you’re using more filler words, and if you’re wanting to level up your leadership impact, go to startwithjulie.com to connect with me. All it takes is answering a few short questions in my form. Then, we can connect for a call and talk about your leadership future. You have so much potential and in a matter of months, if not sooner, we can give you the momentum you need to truly shine. Are you ready? Take the next step with me today.