You Can Say "Um" and "Like" and Still Sound Smart—Here's How

By now, you’ve likely heard the impassioned speech given by Michelle Obama on the Democratic National Convention’s opening night. It was both powerful and elegant, timeless and vital. But what really impressed wasn’t just what the first lady said, but how she said it.

Michelle’s delivery was flawless, thanks to tons of practice and some sort of visual aid. But real life doesn’t come with teleprompters. Most of us rely on “filler words” to fill in the blanks when an idea doesn’t manifest itself as quickly as we’d like. But as New York magazine’s Cari Romm writes, filler words are universally reviled. “Too many ‘ums’ give the impression that you’re nervous or untrustworthy, ‘ah’ and ‘uh’ give off an air of incompetence, ‘like’ makes you sound juvenile,” argues Romm.

Some experts suggest we use filler words every five seconds, so eliminating them from our lexicon entirely is a daunting if not impossible proposition. Instead, argues Quartz’s Susmita Baral, we should focus on using filler words in the right way, one that will help you come off as “more competent, more thoughtful, and better connected with whomever you’re speaking to.”

The key, according to Baral, is using filler words in moderation and “finding the right frequency, knowing which words to use and being cognizant of where you are placing filler words in a sentence.” One of the keys is avoiding “um” and “ah” in favor of “I mean” and “like.” Baral spoke to Steven D. Cohen, a professor of communication at the University of Baltimore, who explained that where a filler word is placed in a sentence also affects how people perceive its use.

According to Cohen, filler words commonly appear at the beginning and in the middle of a sentence. He explains that of the two, it’s the filler words in the middle of sentences that are not nearly as noticeable. To help eliminate filler words at the front of a thought, Cohen recommends having friends or family clap whenever they notice you relying on one.

Another tip Cohen suggests is pausing instead of automatically resorting to a filler word. “A simple pause can have a dramatic impact on our filler word use and how other people perceive us,” Cohen says. “We are conditioned to give immediate responses. We don’t allow ourselves to think. Instead, we share the first thing that pops into our head.”

Being inarticulate may get in the way of your personal goals, so working on using filler words less or more appropriately feels like a winning proposition. 

Learn how to communicate better with a copy of Communication Skills Training: A Practical Guide to Improving Your Social Intelligence, Presentation, Persuasion, and Public Speaking, and let us know if you think using filler words makes people sound less intelligent.