Get Political Wire by Email:

December 26, 2012

Media Tip: How to Eliminate Your "Uhhhs" and "Ummms"

A guest post from Brad Phillips, author of The Media Training Bible.

After President Obama's lackluster first presidential debate in October, many reporters noted the dozens of "uhhhs" that plagued his verbal delivery and made him appear ill-prepared.

You may think of that type of "verbal filler" as a minor cosmetic issue. But in the case of Caroline Kennedy, it doomed her political career before it started. In 2009, New York's governor briefly considered her to fill a vacant Senate seat that opened when Hillary Clinton departed to become U.S. secretary of state. But her interviews were disasters. According to The Wall Street Journal, she said "you know" 168 times during a single 30-minute interview. After being roundly mocked by the local press, Ms. Kennedy removed herself from consideration.

Don't panic if you utter a few "uhhhs" along the way. Almost everyone uses at least some verbal filler while speaking, and it only becomes a problem when it distracts an audience.

If you think verbal filler might be a problem for you, try this exercise. Look around the room and find an object. Don't think about it. Just find an object and shout it out (example: "Printer!").

Begin speaking about that object for 30 seconds. Time it. You're not allowed to use "uhhhs" or "ummms," but you are allowed to pause briefly between sentences. Don't worry about the words you choose--just let them flow. My 30-second drill about the printer looked like this:

"I like my printer. I've had it for about two years, and it rarely jams, which I really appreciate as a busy person who runs his own media training firm. It sits on the corner of my desk in my office in New York City. The best part of my office is the view of the Chrysler Building. It's pretty cool to sit in the dark of winter and see a Manhattan icon out my office window."

You can practice this anywhere--in your car ("Ashtray!"), your shower ("Shampoo!"), and your office ("Burnt popcorn smell!"). The key is to surprise yourself with the object, speak aloud for 30 seconds, and replace articulated pauses with silent ones.

Many people think they've gotten through the drill with no verbal filler, but the audio replay might show they had two "likes" and a "ya know." So use your smartphone's "record" feature to ensure the verbal filler is really gone.


Political Wire Podcast Engaging conversations about elections and the political issues of the day. Subscribe via iTunes or RSS to get episodes automatically downloaded.