Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

The um-ah trap and how to dodge it

umBut ah look, I – I still think that um, ah, it’s not at the level that Labor strategists wanted which was more like 38 per cent of two party – oh sorry, of primary vote, it’s a long way from that. And ah Nielsen today in Fairfax newspapers had 53-47 ah favouring ah, ah, ah, ah, favouring ah, the um. Sorry, I’ve got that wrong haven’t I? I can’t even read my own writing. But let’s, let’s, let’s just be clear about this. The Coalition was whopping the, ah, ah, ah, the, the Government ah, on two party preferred – well ahead as usual.

That is a real, totally accurate transcript of Malcom Farr speaking to Richard Glover  on Sydney Radio a while back, about  the polls. Mr Farr’s point was a relevant one – that the Coalition was still ahead. But it got lost on air (and even worse in writing) amid a swamp of ums, ahs, repetitions, pauses, and other “filler” sounds.

Filler sounds are the ‘continuers’, things we insert when we’re making up a sentence as we go along. Tune your ears to seek them out in conversation and you’ll start hearing them everywhere. Um, Ah, Er, Well, I-I, you know, like, obviously; all these are ‘sound clutterances’ that we don’t need but that we habitually use when hunting for the right word or waiting for a thought to crystallise. There’s nothing wrong with them in conversation, necessarily, but in public speaking we need to be ruthless towards them.

Filler sounds have three major disadvantages to you as a speaker.

The first is they make it clear that you’re out of control of your thoughts and your syntax. Stalling for time and fishing for your words demonstrate that you’re not totally calm and relaxed.

Second, they detract from your point. Like an annoying vocal tick or a repetitive gesture; once your audience notices it it will be hard for them to notice anything else. I’ve seen audience members  keeping a tally on a napkin of the number of times a speaker said “like” – I can’t imagine how much of  her material  they absorbed!

The final problem is that every minute you fill with an “um”, you aren’t filling with pause. Pause is incredibly effective – and gives you just as much time to collect your thoughts and choose your words as an ‘um’ – but it makes you look consistently in control, calm, cool and collected.

Compare Kerry O’Brien and Tony Abbott in this interview. Note their respective ‘um’ tally and see how it plays out – who sounds more confident? Who knows what they’re talking abut? Granted it’s easier to ask the questions than to answer them but still….

How do you beat it?

There are really only two ways around it.

1. Prepare.   Knowing your  material  very well means that you’ll have less occasion to say um, ah, or ‘you know’. Rehearse – by predicting the question  if it’s an interview, or by saying a few  phrases that you will be likely to use .

2. Quarantine the ‘um’.  Set an egg timer for thirty seconds. Speak on something, anything, and have a friend listen for errant “ums”. Once you can comfortably make it thirty seconds, turn it up to sixty seconds. Get comfortable, then raise it to ninety seconds. It’s like that old parlour game turned radio show ‘Just a minute‘. You’re out of the game if you hesitate or repeat yourself.

The um is not your friend. The pause is your friend. And practice makes perfect!

My thanks to EGS  for this post

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