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Show HN: Speech Coaching App – Stop Saying 'Umm', 'Like', 'Uhh' (apple.com)
176 points by abhagi on May 12, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 86 comments

...looking to improve your day-to-day communication...

Is there evidence that saying 'umm' and 'ahh' reduces your ability to communicate effectively? Why are they bad? In conversation phonemes tell the listener than you haven't finished speaking but you're thinking about the next thing to say. Without them people would constantly interrupt one another, which would be horrible.

I don't know where the research on this would be, but I suspect this sort of thing is about exploiting an ingrained cultural association from leaders reading prepared speeches/sermons. No filler words => commanding/authoritative/confident/powerful.

I agree that it would probably get tiresome very quickly in regular conversation. It reminds me of a comedian who asked "Do you think Jesse Jackson talks like that at the dinner table?", referring to the "Baptist preacher voice" seemingly being Jackson's default voice when he's interviewed on TV/radio.

Removing filler words from normal speech gives you clearer speech, not a sermon. Orators use far more tricks than avoiding filler. They speak loudly with exaggerated tones. They exude emotion. Oration is a performance, and for most people it does not come naturally.

It's easy to see the difference with examples. A good example of clear speech is Sam Harris. Even when debating contentious topics, he speaks in calm paragraphs.[1] I could imagine Harris behaving the same in a one-on-one conversation. Contrast that to his opponent, William Lane Craig.[2] If Craig spoke that way in my living room, he would appear insane.

Avoiding filler is necessary for oration, but it's not remotely sufficient. I think this app will improve people's ability to communicate, not bloviate.

1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqaHXKLRKzg&t=3556

2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqaHXKLRKzg&t=4226

I often get the impression that Sam Harris is passively meditating when he speaks.

Though I listened to a 3 1/2 hour train-wreck of a conversation he posted on his podcast with someone who'd reviewed a recent book of his unfairly (in his opinion). He made a very strong effort to keep the conversation on track, and communicated as clearly as ever, but it didn't take long for the frustration to become clear to anyone who listens. My impression is, that as good a communicator as Sam Harris is, there's almost no way to salvage a conversation with a terrible communicator.

I usually have some latency between when someone says something and when I've finished running my "Am I about to say something stupid, pedantic, incorrect, boring, or cruel?" checks on my response. In my experience, removing filler words makes people think that you weren't listening to them or aren't going to bother to responding to what they said. I've had to deliberately practice saying "umm..." before speaking rather than just being silent while I thought about my response.

I do a lot of public speaking, presenting and demoing to audiences of various sizes, and am considered (by at least some people) quite good at this stuff.

My advice would be just stop and think when you need to. It's completely fine and you will convey the impression that you are a serious and thoughtful individual, which is good. You can show that you were listening and are about to respond entirely through your body language.

If you feel uncomfortable with that, there are a bunch of simple tricks you can use here and saying "umm..." is not a good one. One easy thing is to always ensure you have a glass/bottle of water. If someone asks a tough question and you need time to think, wait until they have finished their question, then take a drink of water. No-one thinks this is even slightly strange and it gives you time to think and make a considered answer.

Forgive the expression, but I usually take a multithreaded approach in those situations. For example, you could (probably) easily rattle off a meaningful but neutral initial response and, while you're doing so, run whatever filters you need to before you arrive at the meat of your response.

Let me seeeee ... weeeeeeell ... how can I put this? That sort of thing?

Almost, I failed to mention the reply should contribute something and not just be words for the sake of words though. Purely my personal opinion. Basic example of a borderline canned reply while I think:

Q: "Where should we host our service?" A[instant]: "Well, you have X, Y, and Z." A[afterwards]: "X has these features, but Y might be a better fit for you because..."

An easy one is just acknowledging that you heard the person. Mix and match: oh, ok, huh!, (rephrase what the person just said), I had/hadn't thought of that, cool, interesting, that's an option.

In a Q&A setting: "That's a great question."

It probably wasn't, but that phrase is friendly and buys time to prepare the actual answer.

> Removing filler words from normal speech gives you clearer speech, not a sermon. Orators use far more tricks than avoiding filler. They exude emotion. Oration is a performance, and for most people it does not come naturally.

I'm a bit confused. So if I understand you correctly, Sam is the one with clear, calm speech, but Craig is the praised "orator", yet he would appear "insane" in your living room. So which one do you think is the better speaker?

Take a look at Hitler, he played for the back of the room with not only dramatic (loud) speech but large gestures. He nearly conquered the world with his words. Content aside Craig's speech likely has a larger effect.

Oration tends to sway audiences more than plain speech, but I think it's a little dishonest. Hopefully, such tactics will fall out of favor as more people notice them.

>> Hopefully, such tactics will fall out of favor as more people notice them.

Oh you are way too hopeful. I've experienced so many times situations where I think "surely everyone is seeing through the speaker's BS" only to be severely disappointed.

I somehow was reading Sam Harris as Arron Harris (YC partner, hosts a podcast related to startups). He also speaks nicely.

Quite the opposite -- there is some evidence that disfluencies are good. Here is a study hinting that disfluencies improve recall:

Study: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0749596X11...

> these results suggest an attentional orienting account in which fillers direct attention to the speech stream but do not always result in specific predictions about upcoming material.

Article with commentary: http://nautil.us/blog/your-speech-is-packed-with-misundersto...

> They found that hearers remembered plot points better after listening to the disfluent versions, with enhanced memory apparent even for plot points that weren’t preceded by a disfluency. Stripping a speech of ums and uhs, as Toastmasters are intent on doing, appears to be doing listeners no favors.

On the other hand, if you want to give a powerful, short speech you may care less about people remembering specific content details and more about people remembering that you gave a good speech. In that case you may want to spend some time removing the disfluencies in your speech.

Those are really interesting links. Thanks.

As a perpetual "Like"r/stutterer/"mmm"er...

I've found that when made conscious of it, I'm usually able to slow down my speech just a little bit and that alone gives my brain the time it needs to form thoughts properly and communicate clearly. At worst it's a good exercise in thinking a bit before speaking, especially for us ADHD-types who tend to blurt out the wrong thing at the wrong time quit often.

Our brains seem pretty good at filtering that sort of stuff out, but anecdotally having too many filler words does seem to hurt both comprehension and impressions.

So I think it's more of a pacing thing then a latency thing. Slow down your speech a bit and you'll be in a more comfortable range.

(Side note as a serial interrupter: it's usually nice to let people finish talking)

Thanks for reminding me about this. I both "umm" too much and speak too fast. I should be able to fix both!

I don't think there's any evidence. However, in public speaking, using filler words is seen as a negative, in a sense that you don't know your subject very well. In day to day communications, I don't see this as 'room for improvement', as the filler words kind of indicate that you are thinking on the fly.

There is a good anecdote here: http://firstround.com/review/radical-candor-the-surprising-s...

I think excessive fillers betrays a lack of confidence in what the person is saying, so reducing will help you be a more persuasive speaker.

That's a great article, and the larger advice is relevant in ordinary relationships -- don't be an enabler; care about people, and be willing to tell them when they're doing something that hurts them or you or the team or the family or whatever. "When you say ummm that much it makes you sound stupid" is much better than ignoring the issue and letting your friend keep sounding like they don't know what they're talking about.

It depends on the communication.

If it's with cubemates/rowmates it's okay. If you're a speaker (not just talking) but speaking, then it's noticeable and it becomes distracting. Mostly when you're paying attention and following their train of thought... When you're following someone's train of thought you're filling in in advance, the uhhm, kind of puts a kink in that thought process because it becomes very apparent when a meaningless interruption happens repeatedly.

Now, not being religious it may sound funny for me to say this, but I really appreciate listening to southern Baptist (?) preacher interviews because despite the subject, they are captivating. They pronounce all the syllables, don't cut their words short, don't mix /d/ and /t/ and sound all around pleasant. They are good speakers. Yes, some overdo it and overpronounce and drag out words, I don't mean those.

I've never thought about it too much, but once I attempted to avoid filler words. I ended up sounding like William Shatner, I was told, and that is apparently not a good thing.

I don't think using filler words is an issue in regular conversations. It is less desirable in speeches, though, because it can become really distracting. The simple technique I've used to cut down on it during speeches is to pause instead of using a filler word. For whatever reason, it ends up being much less distracting.

> Is there evidence that saying 'umm' and 'ahh' reduces your ability to communicate effectively? Why are they bad?

Hmm I can't find any good research though at least anecdotally it makes it a lot hard for me to pay attention. Take Paul Graham for instance. Smart guy, great speaker but his frequent "umms" ended up taking me out of his talk and then I couldn't concentrate on anything but his "umms". I love reading his essays but I find it hard to concentrate on his speaking.

Granted I don't know if that says something negative about my ability to concentrate, about Paul's speaking ability, or both and it's anecdotal so no idea if my experience is common.

Elon Musk is another popular example. His presentation skills are awful. I appreciate that they do away with corporate ultra-PR presentations, he certainly seems more human, but I have a hard time enjoying watching his reveals; they're too far in the unrefined direction.

Completely agree. He's not helped by the fact that his audience cheer every 20 seconds. Luckily his products do most of the talking for him.

I don't think removing filler words reduces your ability to communicate effectively but it does make for more eloquent speech.

I'm a stammerer and I'm part of a speech therapy programme. One of the many techniques they teach us is to speak slower and remove filler words as they are often used by stammers to fill the silence when they can't get a word out.

When listening to a talk or lecture I do really notice if the speaker is using fill words and it kind of distracts me from the subject they are talking about.

Well, it shows in some people's typing as well. They try to imitate their verbal communication and actually type "hmmm" or something like that. Drives me nuts.


Sorry. :-)

I do this sometimes when in a conversational tone say on Slack or IRC to show I'm actually thinking/confused by the direction the conversation has taken. I think this is better than the person I'm interacting with thinking I've just bailed.

This is not the same as, uhhh, me, uhhh, like, uhhhh, putting filler words into, uhhh, my writing.

It is used to enhance the communication by making it more representative of a good conversation, as opposed to using filler words.

I don't think chat needs stuff like that. It doesn't give anything to the conversation, you could just think in silence

Sure, but a read receipt (if you even get one) is ambiguous. I can assume that you're thinking about how to respond, but responding immediately with "hmm" is an explicit acknowledgement indicating that you need to need a moment to consider. If it seems weird, I'd chalk it up to the general awkwardness of trying to translate useful, non-verbal aspects of communication into textual analogs.

Typing "Hmm" is almost exclusively used for politeness in situations when a) you don't want to contradict someone directly and b) don't want to sound pompous.

Or as a short hand for "I have read your message and I am thinking of a response."

In my experience only excessive use of 'umm's and 'ahh's is distractive. If a speaker uses them only every now and then to gather their thoughts I don't mind at all. Actually it might even help the listeners to gather their thoughts as well.

> Without them people would constantly interrupt one another, which would be horrible.

If you have a deep and commanding voice, people shut up as soon as you open your mouth, and they don't dare cut you off before you're done. It's primordial.

I noticed this especially a few weeks ago when I was watching presidential debate coverage. Of the six or seven people on screen, two were male. Everyone was talking over each other, except one of the guys who was mostly silent. It was really interesting to watch how he could begin to speak and everyone would be immediately quiet.

"Um", "uh", "well"... It's not that they inherently make you sound weak, it's just that people who take control of rooms don't develop them.

Conqueror's haki

>Why are they bad?

Because, you know, they're overused like to the point that many Americans, ummmm, don't use them to like "tell the listener that you haven't finished speaking" anymore, you know, but instead they're like thrown randomly into, ahhh, sentences, even when the sentence is expressed fluidly, you know?

Using these phrases all the time has somehow become cool, even though it makes people look like fucking idiots.

I have been unable to track down the paper, but a recent study demonstrated that listener comprehension was higher when filler words were used during speech.

I think they are stigmatized because often they are used heavily by those who have no idea what they are taking about. But the fix is to know what you are talking about rather than to eliminate 'umm' from your vernacular. These pauses give your audience time to think, give your audience cues on what parts are important, and let you pull together your own thoughts.

As an example, President Obama says "umm" a LOT and is considered a good speaker.

Only in his unscripted communications. His reputation as a speaker stems from his delivery of messages that are usually pre-written. He's got plenty of dramatic pauses where normal people would say "ummm".

He's considered a good speaker when he is rehearsed. He is considered an umm-er when he is speaking candidly by anybody who doesn't also speak like that.

In his defense, everything he says is hyper-analyzed so he does have to be more careful than most of us.

I, uhh, think you make aaaaaa, a good point there.

Would be awesome if you could still find that paper. I'd really love to take a look at that.

In Spanish these are called "muletillas" and are far from a recent phenomenon. Rather than just being "filler" words, they have a purpose in speech. A speech is not a mere collection of words. Timing and delivery is just as important as eloquence. It is often better to use a filler word than an empty pause.

Just because something "exists" doesn't mean it's a good thing. Try to use silence instead of those ummms. You'll notice you'll get much more attention when you're talking. Silence introduces tension to conversations which makes people pay attention. This is based both on theory (there are tons of books out there that talk about this) and practice (mine).

I agree, a silence seems to imply the speaker has a level of confidence in what they are talking about, wheres "umms" sound a bit more like they are making it up as they go along. Obviously this is a subjective opinion, and too long a pause will seems strange.

It's true though. Engaging speakers use those pauses as breaks to allow the audience to catch up and digest what was just said where as "umm" instills the idea that the speaker isn't prepared and is hunting for what to say next.

You can also pace yourself to remove silence, "buffering" your speech.

I've found the exact opposite to be true in practice, an empty pause feels awkward when you are the speaker but to the audience it conveys expertise, confidence and power

There are better fillers to use than "um" and "uh", though, which don't reflect as badly on the speaker. As some random examples, you can connect things with "Now, [pause] ...", or "On the other hand," or "For that matter,", or many other connecting phrases. Those can be time-fillers too, but as long as they're not overused, they just sound like conversational language rather than making the speaker sound awkward or unpracticed.

Depending on the circumstance I've been working hard on just using silence - or when that would go on too long , simply saying, "I'm thinking that through" or something similar.

Anecdotally people seem more focused on what I'm saying when I do that vs the filler sounds I'm trying to stop saying.

you can also sometimes use body language as connective filler. Blah blah blah blah [holds finger up] [dramatic pause] blah blah blah blah blah!

Continuous, ponderous nodding.

The listener's big gun.

What I want is people in IT to stop using "super". Super effective, super this, super that. Super hard to stop, but it would be super if they did.

"Muletillas" is just the Spanish word for the general linguistic phenomenon of fillers. Both "muletillas" and "fillers" mean the sam thing and serve the same purpose, for example to inform your listener that you're still thinking and forming a sentence, that you are not done.

Now I want to read this book about fillers that I just stumbled upon:


In Japanese, the word for filler is "Naruto".

Here I am reading all this serious talk and you're over here trying to get water to come out of my nose.

One other thing I've noticed especially in large offices is instead of using 'umm' and 'uhh', they speak in such a droning monotone that it makes Ben Stein's classic exaggerated dull speech sound like Freddy Mercury by comparison. This is especially present when the subject of conversation is something neither the speaker nor the listener cares about.

Is there a training program or book that can help somebody get away from this kind of speech? A Baptist preacher can read the phone book and make it sound captivating, but the people I'm talking about could read the speech from Independence Day and make it sound dull, so that has to be an acquired skill that can be applied regardless of the subject.

Toastmasters is a great organization which helps people improve their speaking abilities in all kinds of ways, including the issue you mentioned.

Feature idea: can I take a previously-recorded speech and have it show me the filler words after-the-fact? Could be cool to track improvements over time.

Going by tech talks these days, the most common filler-word is "so", which is also the most common word to start a sentence with

For some reason "so" used this way bothers me more than other fillers. Also, saying "sort of" something when you mean exactly that thing I also find very distracting.

David Cameron usually starts with "Look, ..."

I don't think this can improve on the classic: https://youtu.be/rguQFPnPIYc?t=1m33s

this practice actually works, that is to say it worked on me.

Anyone know anything similar for Android?

For now we're only iPhone, but looking to release an Android version soon. If you're curious, you can sign up for our newsletter for when we add new products.

The entire premise of that article is laughably naive. There's a huge difference between accents and adding unnecessary filler words as you speak. There's an even bigger difference between using an app to try and actualize certain virtues and imposing those virtues on other people. It's extraordinary that the author has the gall to make this connection. Perhaps she'd also want to censor self-help literature since those might impose virtues that she doesn't support?

This is brilliant. I help people with this issue one on one. It makes a huge difference.

If only this app could do something about vocal fries, too.

This looks like a really helpful app. As someone looking to improve both use of filler words and speed (too fast), I look forward to seeing it arrive on Android.

Any languages besides English?

Not yet -- but we are looking to add them soon!

Doesn't seem to work with an Australian / New Zealand accent?

What did you use to de construct the audio?


Really isn't the same without the Angular JS powered USB shock box that gives you a jolt each time you say one of the no-no words.

Hook it up to this thing. The future is now.


And "super"!

Yes, let's program ourselves to sound more conscious.

umm, it would be like, some teens have not much to say anymore?

Huh, kind of cool.

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