Leave Those "Ummms" Alone

Today’s topic is why you really should go easy on editing out those “ummms,” particularly from podcasts. Let me give you a bit of background…

I do a lot of freelancing work through Upwork, and one of the most common requests I see for podcasts looking for freelance editors is that you must remove all “ummms.” There are a few reasons that’s a misinformed request, and they range from linguistic to stylistic to just plain logistic. Let’s cover off the big reasons, one by one.

First up, the linguistic. Ever noticed that when you edit an “ummm” out, you end up with an awkward-sounding cut? There are a couple reasons for that but the biggest one is, believe it or not, physical. It has to do with the shape of your mouth leading into or out of the “ummm”. Some people “ummm” very nicely: they finish a breath, mouth closed, “ummm,” and pause again before speaking. Those “ummms” will come out every time. But some people breathe into an “ummm”. In that case, you’re trying to match up an open-mouthed sound to a closed-mouth sound, and it becomes an awkward cut. Likewise, some people speak into or out of an “ummm” and again, you’re trying to match up sounds that just don’t match.

The best trick for getting around that is to cut from the start of an “ummm” to the start of the next word. That way, most sound mis-matches because of the shape of your mouth will be disguised because the sound of your voice drowns it out. But sometimes, you should just leave the “ummm” in there…or the awkward cut will take listeners right out of the moment.

The next reason to leave in those “ummms” is to do with the cadence of speech. Many people, particularly when they speak off-the-cuff, use “ummms” in a regular way, and those “ummms” help establish the rhythm of their speech. When you take them out, their speech can sound stunted and rushed. By contrast, editing out selected “ummms” can help it be less distracting for the listening audience, but still leaves the speaker sounding natural. This technique is very much more an art than a science, so it’s key to try it out for yourself. Listen to an edited piece of audio a few times, walk away, and listen to it through a different device. You probably won’t notice the “ummms” as much as you did when you were sitting in front of the computer staring at a waveform.

And finally, and this leads nicely on from the last reason: most people don’t notice “ummms” nearly as much as you think. Perception is key here, especially if you’re editing your own voice. Most people hate the sound of their own voice, and hearing the “ummms” in there makes it even worse, and your instinct is to get rid of all of them. But the next time you’re having a conversation with someone, try and listen for how often they say “ummm” when they’re speaking to you. It’ll be a lot more than you expect. It’s natural for people to say “ummm” when they speak, and most people will tune them out or just hear them for what they are: less extraneous words and more a tool for establishing your cadence of speech.

So I’ve established that there are good reasons not to edit out all your “ummms.” But what can you do if you have a guest whose “ummming” is distracting? Or if you yourself have “umm-itis”? There are two things I’d suggest.

First, go ahead and cut those “ummms” if it’s a one-off or a short-term thing. Podcasting is more about a body of work than an individual episode, so if you have one episode full of awkward cuts, that’s fine. You as an editor or producer have to make the decision whether it’s better to have awkward cuts or tons of “ummms”. There’s no right way to solve that problem.

If it’s you, then the best thing you can do to stop “ummming” is to slow down, and repeat yourself if necessary. Slowing down will stop you from trying to run all your sentences together. And if you catch yourself “ummming” in the middle of something, stop, take a breath, and start again from the beginning of the sentence. It’s easy to edit that way, and much as you might feel awkward doing it at first, guests and other hosts won’t really notice.

I hope this has given you a little something to think about this week, and if you’d like to keep the conversation going then please drop me a line! I’d love to hear from you. info@alisonpitt.com is the address, or send me a message on Twitter @alison_pitt.