These Harvard Business School students built an app to help you stop saying 'um' and 'like'


ummo screenshot


"Cold calling" is a tradition at Harvard Business School, but it's also a source of stress for students.


The exact method varies, but it involves a professor randomly calling on a student and saying something to the effect of, "Okay, explain this case."

Everyone is watching. Even for HBS students, the act of spontaneously speaking in front of their peers can inspire a lot of filler words and meandering speech. Um, ah, you know.

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This inspired five HBS students to build a new app called Ummo which tracks your speech so you can understand which phrases you overuse and your how you pace your speaking.

The speech coach

The creators of Ummo told Business Insider something they noticed when working at well-respected companies like McKinsey and Goldman Sachs. The top executives had impressive control of their speech. Why? It wasn't through some sort of innate ability to be eloquent on command.


They all had really expensive speech coaches.

But even within elite business institutions, only a few people have access to those types of coaches, who can sometimes charge hundreds of dollars per hour.

There had already been that tracked filler words like "um" and "ah," but these students wanted to build a tool that was a bit more robust. The five had been coding on the side, and decided to band together to build the app that would become Ummo.

Here's how it works

Once you press record, the app tracks every word you say. For the speech recognition, Ummo's creators tapped into IBM's Watson, and then custom-built more recognition features and analysis on top of it.



One of Ummo's main function is tracking a list of "Filler Words" like "actually" and "basically," which you can modify. You can choose to have it beep at you when you say them. (I turned that off since it was a bit annoying.)


Beyond filler words, Ummo can also display every word you said during a recording, which gives you insight into the kinds of words you lean on.

The app will show you other kinds of metrics as well, like your pace over time, which can help when practicing presentations.

Using Ummo really did illuminate the types of phrases I tend to overuse, though in its initial iteration it is a tad buggy. I personally overuse the word "like" (maybe I can blame my California upbringing for that). And while I'm not sure that interjecting "likes" into my speech makes me sound less confident or in-control, it did remind me of other words that I use too much, such as "just," which I use as a crutch.

And even if you think you understand your speech, this app will probably show you something new.

The creators said they brought a build of their app to the Harvard debate team, whose members you might assume have a detailed understanding of exactly how they speak. Not so, the creators say. On the first trial, the debaters were struck by how many times they said "actually."


Right now, Ummo is an iPhone app, but the creators see a future in more passive applications like wearables. Though it remains to be seen how many people want to have their speech tracked through long periods of the day.

You can check out Ummo for yourself at the App Store (it costs $1.99).

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