I recently attended a well-known public speaking organization, Toastmasters, to learn more about their structure and strategy in developing speakers. While I appreciated their focus on strong organization, the building of vocabulary and the pursuit of grammatical accuracy, I found the practice of counting “ums” rather counterproductive.
Telling a speaker they have 7 ums and 4 uhs is like focusing on someone’s face and noticing freckles and blemishes without taking in the whole face and person. If you are going to count “fillers,” then why not count the “you knows” and “likes” as well? But more importantly, if you count hesitations, do you also count the number of times the speaker is fluent? What is the proportion of hesitations to smooth speech? Do the hesitations really stand out in a negative way, or are they noticed because the focus is to listen for them?
Analyzing empty vocalizations for a beginning speaker can exacerbate speech anxiety, and even increase the number of hesitations going forward. I’ve worked with many individuals with public speaking anxiety and for some, focusing on small imperfections can be traumatic and have a long-lasting negative impact.
Furthermore; all uhs and ers are not the same! Where and when they occur is more critical than quantifying them, and better indicators of whether these hesitations actually impact listener attention or speaker credibility.
Also important is why these hesitations occur. Some ums may be indicative of vocabulary needs or word-finding difficulty, particularly if the speaker speaks English as a second language. Others may represent the speaker’s personality style or a neurophysiological difference, and some might occur unconsciously, from habit.
A professional speech coach employs strategies to strengthen and enhance fluency with an unwavering focus on building each individual’s presentation confidence. Eliminating empty vocalizations is important and necessary for media presentations and for professional speakers… but as a finishing touch. If hesitations are to be counted, I suggest doing so once a speaker has developed a certain level of public speaking comfort and confidence, not at the beginning of public speaking training. And, if this habit is signaled as a weakness, be sure to give the speaker direction and support to change this behavior.
Thanks for listening.