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I mean…um…what do I mean??

One of the most common of all traits among those who speak in public is the verbal tick. Most of my clients have them, our former rabbi had them, President Obama has them, you probably have them. And because I have them as well, I have made somewhat of a study of them.

For decades, the most common one has been “um” — so common that we almost don’t hear it any longer, and that is either good or bad, depending upon your point of view. The more innocuous the verbal tick, the more it blends into the background, but also the more difficult it is to eliminate.

Verbal ticks serve two purposes: they provide speakers with a verbal runway to get up to speed and they provide a canvas on which to think. Phrased this way, they seem almost honorable, and I’m sure there are some who will question why I even devote a column to this. Should I call attention to these little linguistic gnats? Might they not just go away if we ignore them?

They are not going away; in fact, they are becoming more profuse. I am now a victim of my own curiosity, as my level of awareness approaches the obsessive. I listen to talk show hosts and guests, Olympians, colleagues, and to myself. I have become an authority on the subject. I am the gold medalist in verbal tick research.

My preferred verbal ticks are “Okay” and “Okay so.” I use the former to connect two thoughts that have become separated in time and I use the latter to transition to a new subject. Here are two actual excerpts from a recent presentation:

A good presentation consists of what you say, what you show, and what you give.

[Question: which one is most important. Answer: what you say. yadda yadda for 60 seconds.]

Okay, how do you make sure that what you say is different from what you show?

The bottom line is that you become a better storyteller when you use animation to sequence dense data.

Okay, so: what constitutes dense data? How do you recognize the right time?

In a full day of speaking, I am likely to use either of these devices a dozen times each. If you were in my audience you probably wouldn’t notice and I don’t consider them to be verbal deficiencies that merit exploration and resolution. They don’t upset the rhythm of the talk, they obviously help keep me in the flow, and they are just not worth fixing.

The most prominent verbal tick among prominent interview subjects is undoubtedly “well.” Watch Anderson Cooper, Rachel Maddow, Bill O’Reilly, or Bob Costas over the remaining days of the Olympiad when he interviews colleagues. Count how many answers begin with “Well…” It’s like a warmup for the tongue; it greases the cognitive skids. And it’s perfectly fine. It doesn’t need fixing. Except for the fact that I have now called your attention to it, it will drive you bananas, and you’ll hate me for it. Other than that, it’s fine.

One of the silliest ticks is the “Yeah no.” It usually begins a response that is in agreement with the previous statement, but there is more to say. Yeah [I agree]…no [to elaborate]… I’ve done that one, too. Generally it occurs in the flow of rapid response and it feels natural, so it too, is not really that bad.

But our society has developed a worse tick. It seems to have inflicted 90% of the adult population under 30. Practically every single Olympian has displayed it. About half of our politicians have been recorded using it, including the presidential candidates from both parties. I mean, everyone is saying it. It seems to have come out of nowhere. I mean, where did it come from?

I mean, of course, “I mean!”

This expression no longer indicates that you intend to elaborate. It no longer signifies that you want to clarify a statement. It now means nothing at all. It is two utterly vapid words at the beginning of sentences.

And I don’t like it. And I have begun doing it. And now I really don’t like it.

Here is another word-for-word excerpt, taken from one of my recent webinars:

Q: How do you get the president of the company to realize that he can’t just speak to a set of slides without rehearsing?

A: I mean, you kind of want to record him flaming out and then show it to him, don’t you?

Why did I do that? Other than because I hear my 16-year-old doing it, how did this become practically an overnight habit? It’s not a tick, it’s a tackle. It’s not a stepping stone, it’s a hurdle.

It’s only August, but I’m going to make a New Year’s resolution. At the risk of paralysis by analysis, I am going to try to become conscious of the way I begin verbalizing my thoughts. I’ve probably told it to clients a thousand times over the last decade; now it’s time to tell it to myself:

Start with silence.

As I prepare to articulate a thought or a response, I resolve to keep quiet. I speak English fluently; I do not need a helping hand to converse. I do not yet suffer from dementia; I am capable of formulating a cogent thought without a boost. And I have not bitten my tongue recently; it does not need a warmup act to begin the act of delivering consonants and vowels. I should be able to do this.

What you can infer from this is that I do not consider mid-sentence ticks to be as objectionable. Dropping in a few ums and uhs in the middle of your thought is normally not so noticeable. Good thing, too, because they are much more difficult to fix. Calling attention to your speech pattern while it is in mid-stream can be distracting at best and debilitating at worst. Unless your mid-thought ticks are so bad as to be like a stutter, leave them alone.

Consider, however, joining me in my resolution. When I prepare to deliver a thought or a response to a question, I will begin with two seconds of silence. I’m willing to bet that it will not upset my rhythm or inhibit my ability to find my verbal flow. I’m predicting that my ticks are caused by carelessness or excess energy that I am simply not regarding.

Or…it transforms me into a mental train wreck. I become so obsessed with how I begin sentences that I forget how. I spiral into the quicksand of linguistic dysfunction. I turn into a babbling idiot. And this just nine weeks before I play host to 200 presentation professionals at the Presentation Summit.

On second thought, perhaps those ticks aren’t so bad after all. I mean, really…


  1. Michael Cooke on Aug 7, 2012 at 4:50 am

    Big thanks for the reminder to pause before speaking. A speaker’s ticks can drive me crazy too.

  2. Wayne Michael on Aug 7, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    Good article, Rick. Mine is beginning a sentence with, “So…” The POTUS: “Look….” Many of my colleagues: the overuse of the word “typically” when describing how some law or statute typically/generally/often/usually/most often works.

  3. Susan on Aug 7, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    Wonderful article and a great reminder to be more mindful of our speaking habits. I’m surprised you didn’t mention what i think is the worst habit of all — the word “like”. Sometimes for sport i count the times it is uttered in an elevator during a conversation — horrifying!

    • Rick Altman on Aug 7, 2012 at 4:48 pm

      Susan, the sun never sets on the examples I could have given. Like…so…look…yes…actually…to be honest with you — and on and on!

  4. Tommy Powell on Aug 8, 2012 at 8:32 am

    Rick, having heard you present on multiple occasions over he best part of a decade, I had never noticed the ‘Okay. so’s’! Great advice though.

  5. Craig Hadden - Remote Possibilities on Aug 10, 2012 at 7:59 am

    You might enjoy the poem by Taylor Mali on this subject, a recording of which (accompanied by engaging “kinetic typography”) is available via http://www.killerwebinars.com/2011/08/04/kinetic-typography/

    Then again, it might make you just grind your teeth! :-)

    I believe saying “OK, so…” and the like can actually be valuable to the audience, because it signals a connection or transition. So it’s a bit like “verbal punctuation”, and of course – used appropriately – punctuation is vital.

    A large part of the issue with ticks is whether they convey any meaning, and also the frequency with which they occur. If they convey meaning, by all means try to vary the words used (so they don’t become glaring and hence annoying), but don’t remove them altogether. And if they don’t convey meaning, then shoot to kill!

    I’ve recently joined Toastmasters, and some of their clubs use an “ah counter” – someone whose task is to count ticks (as mentioned in the video at http://remotepossibilities.wordpress.com/2012/07/28/toastmasters-see-what-its-like-right-now/ ). The club I joined doesn’t use one, but I’m thinking of suggesting it, as I think it can be a useful gauge (among many others) of speaker effectiveness.

  6. Ken Molay on Sep 9, 2012 at 9:18 pm

    Rick, I once posted an astonishing example of this behavior in an audio clip on my blog. If you can stand it, try listening to the player embedded in this post…

    You need to allow QuickTime to play it. It perfectly illustrates your points in no uncertain terms.

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