Killing the ums and ahs

TOKYO —

My former colleague was a notorious “ummer” and “ahher”. “Um, I, um, would, um, like to um, say um, thank you, um, for um, this um, opportunity”. Listening to him was seriously painful.

Time seemed to freeze, as it took forever for him to get to the point, which was mostly lost due to dreadful syntax.

The ability to stand before others and express oneself clearly is a basic skill that is sadly still lacking in many people.

Rambling, mumbling, zero focus on the audience, no power of persuasion, and “I Am the Brand” suicide continue to stunt careers. Sprinkle in some ums and ahs for good measure and we have a recipe for disaster.

I will now share with you a guaranteed formula to end this reign of terror you potentially have been inflicting on audiences your entire life.

Experience tells us that off-the-cuff remarks are more likely to produce hesitancy in speech than a prepared presentation. For those hard-core ummers, however, it seems to make little difference.

Reading a prepared speech is another form of torture for an audience that should be avoided at all cost if possible. However, following this advice forces speakers to think on their feet, which triggers the dreaded filler words.

No wonder people rate public speaking higher than death in surveys about their worst fears.

These filler words give us time to think, but why do we need them? If we know what we want to say, we should just be able to get right into it.

The PowerPoint trap

Usually, preparing for a presentation means working on PowerPoint for 99.9% of us.

Herein lies the first mistake. Slaves to PowerPoint will never become effective communicators, because the focus is on the data rather than the message. We know that how we say something is more important than what we say. Please read that sentence again, as I am sure for many people that sounds outrageous.

You may think, “Surely content is king and people will pay more attention to the message than smoke and mirrors used for presentation”. But this is not the case.

When a presentation’s content and delivery are incongruent, only 7% of the message is heard and 93% is lost due to distraction caused by how we look and sound.

No wonder presenters who devote 99.9% of their time to PowerPoint content at the expense of rehearsing their delivery are dull. If listeners are only getting 7% of what we are saying, that does not constitute very effective communication.

PowerPoint is not a substitute for good communication — it is merely an aid.

The president of a firm who immediately launches into a corporate video joins the ranks of “presentation scoundrels”. This happens more often than it should.

Videos should never take the place of strong communication for key messages. Like PowerPoint, they are just for support, so use them sparingly and make your face the key communication tool, followed by your voice, gestures, pauses and posture.

Using notes, either on paper or through the order of slides, is perfectly acceptable. Reading those notes is not.

Recently, I attended a presentation where the speaker was well dressed, well groomed, the whole package — until she proceeded to read entirely from her notes. You could hear the air of her credibility being sucked out of the room the moment she started reading. Don’t be relegated to the dustbin of totally forgettable speakers like her.

We should allow our notes to spark the messages we wish to convey. Prior to delivery, practise, practise, practise! No one expects perfection, so incorrect pronunciation or pauses to consider subsequent remarks are natural.

The use of filler words is permissible a few times in a presentation, but the higher the frequency, the tighter the hangman’s noose is tied around the speaker’s own reputation and personal brand.

Here is the Dr Story rule on avoiding filler words: Decide the first word of each sentence and hit that word hard. Allow no other noise to escape your mouth before continuing with the sentence. Once you get to the end of that sentence, SHUT UP!

Then it is very, very important to purse you lips together so no sound can escape. Keep repeating this process and there is no possibility of filler words ever being uttered. I guarantee you this works.

I wasn’t quite in the league of the colleague I referred to above, but I did give him a run for his money occasionally. Like me, everyone I have taught this method to has eliminated filler words almost entirely. They followed this simple technique until it became habit — a positive habit.

Good luck!

Author Infomation

Dr Greg Story
Dr Greg Story
The author is president of Dale Carnegie Training Japan.
  • 0

    fanofjapan2005

    The author didn't include the "you know"s. If all U.S. athletes of every sport had to pay a dollar to the U.S. Treasury for each "you know" spoken in TV and radio interviews, the U.S.'s debt problem would be non-existent.

  • -1

    Frungy

    We know that how we say something is more important than what we say.

    Nonsense. A lie is always a lie, no matter how prettily I dress it up. First get your facts straight, THEN find a way to put them across prettily.

    because the focus is on the data rather than the message.

    ... and you assume that every audience is full of people who can't read the data? What an arrogant, condescending, load of BS. Perhaps this is true for liberal arts graduates, but personally I want the presenter to speak about the message with the data backing up their point available for review, either on Powerpoint or in a handout, otherwise I dismiss the presenter as another snake-oil salesman immediately.

  • 2

    GalapagosnoGairaishu

    Once I attended (as a guest) a Toastmasters meeting and noted that they deducted points from the speaker's score whenever he or she made hesitating noises. I quickly realized it was an easy habit to break. (Just pretend there's an umpire present, deducting points.) So while I didn't join, I guess I owe Toastmasters a, uh, vote of thanks for completely curing me of, er, that habit.

  • 0

    amida

    "Decide the first word of each sentence and hit that word hard. Allow no other noise to escape your mouth before continuing with the sentence. Once you get to the end of that sentence, SHUT UP!"

    But what if the first word you think about tends to be "well..." or something similar to that? Those words fulfil the same purpose as "Um": buy some time before getting to the point.

  • 0

    Xeno23

    There's an added benefit to not vocalizing one's pauses, and it's quite powerful: it creates a certain anticipation in one's audience - hanging on words.

    We're used to pauses being preliminary to something important or dramatic, so when employed in speech, even very briefly, I've found people tend to pay more attention. It's the "wait for it" thing. You don't want to exploit it too much, because that gets old and affects the continuity of your delivery, but pausing for the amount of time it takes to say "um" tunes people in to more active listening - and that's key to audience attention.

  • 0

    ControlFreak

    Umms and ahs are useful and expressive. Just like everything else though, you can have too much of a good thing.

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