Career Changers

Uh... um... uh...

August 6th, 2015

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One of my pet peeves, which has been exasperated by my experiences as an interviewer for TV and video projects, is hearing normally articulate, intelligent people drop "uh" or "um" into every pause between sentences or phrases. I try to edit out those unintentional brain farts, but it can make the end result sound choppy and I have to cover those micro-snips with extraneous b-roll shots that I'd rather use elsewhere.

Is it my imagination, or does it really seem like the overuse of "uh" and "um" is becoming contagious? We all do it at times, including myself. For some reason, when I'm making appointments or dinner reservations on the phone, I lapse into it even though I know what I want to say. When I'm interviewing people, I sometimes become self-conscious about asking my subjects to refrain from doing it -- and in the process, I wind up saying something like, "I know it's hard, um, not to uh, say um or uh, but try to pause or swallow the urge to fill silences with um or uh, okay?"

It's risky to interrupt an interview in progress to ask the subject to edit themselves. Some become even more nervous. But I've also had company CEOs thank me for pointing out their unconscious vocal tics. To me, that's the mark of a professional. They take constructive criticism and instructions to heart instead of pushing back or wilting in the face of a challenge to their normal way of doing things.

Which is why it surprises me when highly-paid superstar athletes, coaches, academic leaders, and yes, even professional broadcasters or entertainers fall back on the uh-um crutch. I think in some cases they subconsciously do it to "humble" themselves so they don't appear to be overconfident or intellectually superior. It's like, Hey, I'm just an ordinary guy like you, um, you know what I'm sayin'?

Take Marcus Mariota for example. Terrific young man. From all reports, he's everything you want in a person or athlete -- smart, extremely coachable, humble, goal-driven. But for God's sake, Marcus, please hire a professional speaking coach! You're going to be doing lots of on-camera interviews and post-game press conferences for the rest of your football-playing days, so embrace it. Study experienced pro athletes who know how to work the cameras and deliver more than your basic sports cliches. The unnecessary uhs and ums make him sound like he lacks confidence -- and anyone who's ever seen him play knows how great he is.

I'm not sure why it seems like more people are getting in that habit. Maybe in the past, more teachers used to drill it into our heads not to do it? Or is it we just do a lot more talking these days without thinking first?

Seriously, I read that a recent study shows people who pause while they speak are considered by listeners to be more intelligent and thoughtful. I tell my interview subjects that it's perfectly fine to pause and gather their thoughts before answering a question instead of blurting out the first thing(s) that pop into their heads. Often, really smart people will start out on one train of thought, then in mid-sentence jump on another train going in a different direction, and wind up getting back on the original train a minute or two later. Talk about your editing nightmares.

As it happens, I'm not the only one who ponders the uptick in "pause fillers." Here's a link to a BBC News article about it, and as one of the accompanying stock photos shows, even gifted orators in the highest positions of leadership are guilty of doing it... am I, uh, right, Mr. President?


2 Responses to “Uh... um... uh...”

  1. Ocean Lover:

    In defense of Marcus and athletes in general......."You know". Try and take notice of how often athletes say those two words when getting interviewed!

  2. Rich Figel:

    Yeah, that's another pet peeve -- it's not just athletes though that do the "you know" and "you know what I'm saying?" thing! Seems like younger people do it more than older folks.