Michael, Mark,

Great work on putting these podcasts together. I find them immensely valuable.

I am a member of my area Toastmasters club. At the end of the meeting we have a grammarian report that, amongst other things, details the number of "ums" and "ahs" that were used by anyone who spoke at the meeting that day. The offenders pay 10c per "filler" word that goes towards the coffee fund. I end up dropping a few bucks every meeting into the coffee fund jar.
For better or for worse, my ear is now trained to notice these filler words. What are your thoughts on the use of these "fillers"? How important do you think is it to eliminate this from one's speech. I ask this because if your podcast were presented at my TM meeting, you'd both end up dropping a few bucks into the coffee fund. If Anderson Cooper were speaking at my TM he could probably pay for the whole year's coffee after just one speech.


bflynn's picture

Ums and Ahs happen because you mouth is trying to speak before your brain has formed the thought. Now that you've been trained to hear them, you will find them somewhat distracting. Some in your audience will have the same experience, so the Ums have to come out of your speech.

Next meeting, don't speak to the group, speak to a member of the group. Form one complete thought, look at a single person, say the thought to the person, then move on to the next thought/person. Your Ums will almost disappear because you're imposing a discipline on your speaking. It takes some practice, but stick with it and in a week or two, your public speaking will be at a new level.

When you don't have a live audience, it can be very difficult to maintain the same discipline. I don't have any suggestions for this situation other than perhaps to set up several small items and use them as people. If I were going to practice speaking, I might borrow several stuffed animals from my son and set them up as people. The same should work for making recordings.


chuckbo's picture

To me, some of it depends upon some other factors. Even after twenty-five years of Toastmasters, there are some speakers I never notice their verbal pauses (unless I'm assigned that role and really paying attention specifically to that). Others, every one of them stands out.

I'm less likely to notice if the speaker is interesting and has me engaged, thinking about the topic, and has energy. On the other hand, I still tell people about a boss' boss' boss I had who had ahs inside his ahs: "I think that uh, [pause] uhhhh [pause], uh that's a very important point." There was a group, after meetings, who would compare how many they'd counted. So do you think he was effective in getting across his message? And consider that twenty years after the fact, people still tell stories about his speaking style; that's his legacy to some.

I also tend to be more aware of them when salespeople use them, because I start to wonder if they're making this stuff up on the fly. To me, it makes the speaker sound less prepared.

The important thing to recognize is that they can be a distraction to people. Distractions have an effect on people hearing your message. If you have enough good habits to compensate, you can still be an effective communicator. (I know that I need any little advantage that I can get; I work at substituting a split-second of silence for my verbal pauses.)

Have you ever asked anyone you trust who just heard you speak -- not from your club -- if he noticed any distracting habits that you have as a speaker?


bisogni's picture

One thing that Chuck mentioned in a roundabout way is flow. Typically, I find speeches all too stiff. It is during these that the fillers become an annoyance to me. To be fair, I begin to pick up on many things, such as repetitive use of key words or phrases.

The statement about trusting what is being said does strike a cord with me. To avoid the "um" and "ah" trap, I tend to take a quick moment, not only to consider what I'm about to say, but to also consider the pace at which I say it. During Q&A sessions, I've had to train myself to respond to the question by restating it to make sure I've got it correct. Then I pause. Then I reply "in plain text", followed by an example. Lastly, I follow up to make sure I answered the question.

This process has helped me overcome my two largest problems, deviating into side stories and uttering those sounds that clue others in to the fact that my mouth is outpacing my mind.

XOLegato's picture

I second the need for proper flow in speeches. While not exactly speeches, the lectures of my various professors provide an interesting study in good and bad public speaking. Although infrequent, "ums" and "ahs" do much do discredit the words of the professor who includes them.

One suggestion, that is born out of observing one of the most WELL spoken professors I've ever had, is to turn every "uhm" and "ah" into a short pause for effect. Now, the way some people pepper in these words, half of the speech would be silence, and that's not good. But this professor, who has a reputation for being one of the most fascinating and engaging lecturers on campus, would punctuate every thought with a brief (one second or less) pause before moving on to the next thought. This not only allowed the students to absorb his last point, but it also allowed him (I'm sure) to gather his thoughts. The series of pauses also created an intense dichotemy between his silence and his speech, making each individual idea he presented more powerful because it contrasted with the preceding silence.

Just an idea to try.

ps. This professor also followed all of M&M's advice on public speaking!

jacques's picture

Make it a practice to close your mouth after saying each word. This will prevent those "uhms" and "ahs" from getting out. It will be a very conscious effort at first.

This is something I read a long time ago.
I try to practice it and I believe it... uh... works.

aspiringceo's picture

Hi Hyder,

I do not know whether I should thank you or curse you. :)
I just spent the whole afternoon at a meeting with five separate presentations including one from me. However, instead of listening to the content, I was listening for the "Ums" and "Ahs" and sure enough they came thick and fast. I was also very conscious of saying them myself and I have to admit a few crept through especially if someone asked me a question during the presentation (allowing questions during the presentation as suggested by Mark was a new experience) where I found myself Uming & Ahing as I went back to the presentation. Guess I need to continue working on this as well as reviewing the 4 presentations I did'nt really listen to.


GlennR's picture

Thanks to Toastmasters I've discovered that I'm prone to um's and ah's when I'm trying to think of what to say next. Therefore, the more I practice a presentation or speech, the fewer um's and ah's I use.

Learning to just close your mouth instead of saying um is hard, but I'm much better at it. Good tip, Jacques.

Now if we Toastmasters could just get people to call that thing you stand behind a lecturn and not a podium, world peace would follow. :D

(You stand [b]on[/b] a podium--you stand [b]behind[/b] a lecturn.
Pod from the Latin for foot. Think Podiatrist.
Lecturn--think "lecture.")

Mark's picture
Admin Role Badge


I don't think the um's and ahh's thing is that big a deal. Toastmasters (whom I love) focus on it because it's teachable - you can count it.

Would I coach on it? Yes. Would it be in my first 5? No way.