RefinED Character is an educational consulting company specializing in social emotional development for preK-12 and collegiate communities.


Speak With Conviction: Uh, It's Like Really Important, You Know?

Posted by Scott Heydt on Saturday, March 22, 2014

“Say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks the determination with which you believe it.” ~Taylor Mali

It’s sometimes, like, really difficult to, um, complete even one sentence without, like, using one of these three phrases, you know?  Imagine all Internet content written in this style. You would douse your computer with gasoline and set it aflame after the first two paragraphs.

You don’t write this way, but perhaps you speak this way. Not to worry, everyone is guilty of ‘ums’, ‘likes’, and ‘you knows’ at one time or another, but you can significantly reduce these phrases in your vocabulary.


‘Um’ and ‘uh’ are called disfluencies and signal a pause in speech. They help fill dead conversational air. You might keep the listener’s attention by filling short pauses with ‘um’. For example, “Um, I like skydiving, and um, I'm also into graphic design.”

‘Uh’ is a disfluency used for longer pauses and often signals uncertainty, little preparation, or dishonesty. For example, you arrive home well into the AM, and Mom (waiting for you) asks, “Where have you been?”

“Uh (long pause), out with the guys.”

“Doing what?” Mom asks.

“Uh (long pause), stuff.”


‘Like’ and ‘you know’ are discourse markers, meaning they tag parts of your conversation but don’t increase the sentence’s value. These are the words that express nervousness, detail someone’s words or actions, or attempt to explain what seems unexplainable. For example:

Nervousness: “What I’m saying is, like, can I get a raise?”

Detail Words or Actions: “So I was talking to Danny, and he was like, ‘Man, that movie rocked!’ and I’m like, ‘I know! Can you believe that ending?’ and he’s like, ‘I know!."

Attempt to Explain the Unexplainable:  

“Why didn’t you text me last night?”

“Like, I was going to text, but, like, I couldn’t find my cell.  Then, like, when I found it, there was, like, no battery left.”


Think for a moment how continued use of these phrases can affect your relationships.

Uhs’ create an impression of dishonesty or a hidden agenda (even if you’re 100% truthful) and may deteriorate trust. Maybe you were out with the guys doing ‘stuff’, but the long pause makes Mom think that ‘stuff’ may not be legal or responsible.

Repeated ‘likes’ can make others think you are unprepared or lack intelligence. Notice I said repeated use can make others think you are not intelligent. I have taught student geniuses in my classroom that used ‘like’ as a verbal crutch. I knew how intelligent they were, but even I thought what they said was incoherent drivel at times.

‘You know’ sounds uncertain and may place someone else in a position where they feel they must respond. Imagine the pressure you would feel hearing this statement. “I’ve always wondered what it’d be like to drown a puppy, you know?”


Disfluencies and discourse markers are like drugs—addictive and difficult to quit cold turkey.  You must wean slowly or face potential relapse.  First, admit you have a problem and monitor your speech.  Record a conversation with a friend or have them call you out when you use a phrase too often.  Maybe even create a coin jar or tally sheet—one penny or tally mark for every disfluency or discourse marker you catch in conversation.

Once you have a baseline, list what you’ll gain from disfluency and discourse marker elimination. Greater trust. Perceived intelligence and preparedness. Improved public speaking skills. The list goes on. You have no impetus for change unless you see what you’ll gain from that change.

Next, tackle one word or phrase at a time. Set a reasonable daily or weekly goal such as, “Today I’ll say ‘like’ no more than ten times.” Tape that number on the bathroom room mirror, or set it as a reminder on your phone. If you accomplish your goal, reward yourself. Tell your friends, family, and mentors about your plan, and see if they will join you or help hold you accountable.

Finally, be comfortable with silence. Most disfluencies and discourse markers occur because your brain can’t keep up with your mouth. A pause here and there, especially when you are excited, is far better than unnecessary words. After all, like, who needs these, um, disfluencies and discourse markers anyway, you know?


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