Um, Ah, Er: Does Hesitation Make You a Better Speaker?

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speaker Um, Ah, Er: Does Hesitation Make You a Better Speaker? Have you ever wished you could eradicate the “ums” and “ahs” right out of your conversation, and especially your public presentations?

Turns out those verbal fillers may play an important role in establishing trust, according to this Slate magazine article by Michael Erard:

“…”uh” and “um” don’t deserve eradication; there’s no good reason to uproot them. People have been pausing and filling their pauses with a neutral vowel (or sometimes with an actual word) for as long as we’ve had language, which is about 100,000 years. If listeners are so naturally repelled by “uhs” and “ums,” you’d think those sounds would have been eliminated long before now. The opposite is true: Filled pauses appear in all of the world’s languages, and the anti-ummers have no way to explain, if they’re so ugly, what “euh” in French, or “äh” and “ähm” in German, or “eto” and “ano” in Japanese are doing in human language at all.

In the history of oratory and public speaking, the notion that good speaking requires umlessness is actually a fairly recent, and very American, invention. It didn’t emerge as a cultural standard until the early 20th century, when the phonograph and radio suddenly held up to speakers’ ears all the quirks and warbles that, before then, had flitted by. Another development was the codification of public speaking as an academic subject. Counting “ums” and noting perfect fluency gave teachers something to score.

What’s more, “uhs” and “ums” do not necessarily damage a speaker’s standing. Recently, a University of Michigan research team turned their attention to phone survey interviewers. They found that the most successful interviewers—the ones who convinced respondents to stay on the line and answer questions—spoke moderately fast and paused occasionally, either silently or with a filler “uh” or “um.” “If interviewers made no pauses at all,” the lead researcher, Jose Benki, told Science Daily, “they had the lowest success rates getting people to agree to do the survey. We think that’s because they sound too scripted.” Speaking with a certain number of “uhs” and “ums,” it seems, may actually enhance a speaker’s credibility.”

For those of you who have embarked on this site’s collective Year of Speaking Dangerously (in which we’re challenging ourselves to become the best and bravest speakers we can be), this is intriguing information. If you’ve been to a Toastmasters meeting, you know that at every session someone is appointed to count ahs and ums. This is an incredibly useful tool for making you conscious of how often you resort to these verbal fillers. And I must admit, I’m glad to be rid of them.

Still, it’s nice to know that verbal hesitation actually makes speakers more credible. This fits in with other research I’ve written about, for example here, that expressing uncertainty makes people trust your opinions more.

What do you think: is there a place for um’s and ah’s at the podium? What do you think more generally about expressing uncertainty — is it a useful thing to do, or does it detract from a message?

And, for those engaged in your Year of Speaking Dangerously, how are you doing?

I’ll report first: Last week, I gave a seven minute talk (no notes at all) about my forthcoming book, QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. The venue was a salon for women leaders. There were sixty-five people there, and the subject of the evening was power, confidence, and voice. I spoke about the powers of speaking softly but with deep conviction. It was a terrific experience.

I also appeared on the Diane Rehm show on NPR, which I enjoyed very much; you can hear a recording here.

How about you? Have any of you been going to Toastmasters or doing any other public speaking? Would love to hear your stories – even if all you’ve done thusfar is THOUGHT about attending. Also, please don’t be reluctant to share any lumps and bumps you may be enduring along the way — they are to be expected. Can’t have a QUIET Revolution without ‘em.

On the other end of the spectrum, many readers of this blog are extremely experienced and gifted public speakers. We would love to hear your stories as well.

 


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23 Comments

  1. Brittany on 16.08.2011 at 21:59 (Reply)

    That’s really interesting how that article suggests that ums and ahs aren’t something we have to get rid of. In Toastmasters that seems like one thing that is taught right away, to try and get rid of ums and ahs. I was recently the grammarian and had to listen out for the ums and ahs. I only found a few faint ones, but they didn’t bother me and I only noticed them because I was listening out for them. I have speech #2 to give tomorrow, and I’m planning on not using my notes, though I’ll have my flash cards in hand in case I need a quick glance near the end to keep myself on track. I’m glad your 7 minute talk to the salon for women leaders went excellently!

    1. Susan Cain on 17.08.2011 at 19:03 (Reply)

      Thanks, Brittany! Eager to hear how your second TM talk goes. Will you be taping this one? Perhaps you can share it here.

  2. Jennifer on 17.08.2011 at 09:12 (Reply)

    I’m a fellow Toastmaster too, and do appreciate having someone notice these verbal fillers. Toastmasters emphasizes pausing – taking time to collect thoughts, both on the speaker’s and listeners end.

    I think it’s really a balance – if a speaker has just a few sprinkled throughout the time she/he is speaking, it’s not that bad. On the other hand, I can think of quite a few speeches/lectures that I’ve sat through, and started counting all those fillers, or if a speaker had a fav phrase that she/he repeated constantly. I lost the message.

  3. Joe BW Smith on 17.08.2011 at 13:03 (Reply)

    I have wondered about this in my next season of public speaking as a preacher. My first season was to just get out there. The second season was to be comfortable without a manuscript. The third season was to be comfortable with technology use. I’ve wondered if the fourth season was to eliminate the ums and ers in my speaking. I think some of these vowel transitions do register higher on the authenticity scale than a perfectly polished audio flaw-free delivery. I’m not completely convinced, but I am persuaded. Thank you for sharing this, Susan.

    1. Susan Cain on 17.08.2011 at 19:05 (Reply)

      You’re welcome, Joe. Curious too what you did during Season #3 for comfort with technology use. What kind of tech do you use? Slides? Other stuff?

      1. Joe BW Smith on 17.08.2011 at 23:55 (Reply)

        Susan–

        Technology that I have used for sermons/speaking–at the turn of the century, using power point in the church was a bit of a big deal. I had to double my preparation to be able to use it effectively. I made a ton of mistakes–but my experience in changing seasons of speaking was huge. I’m in a small congregation now. I’m attempting to integrate social media–even taking questions in the middle of a sermon through Twitter. This is a direction I’d like to go. I use my iPad while I speak and podcast my sermons now, which isn’t unique, but it’s the whole package. Listening to myself is a painful experience, and part of how I am working on season 3 and 4. Maybe season #4 is more about interactive public speaking/preaching. Great question. That was fun to answer!

        1. Susan Cain on 18.08.2011 at 08:18 (Reply)

          Thx, very interesting! How does taking questions via Twitter differ from taking them out loud, in real time?

          I actually love interactive speaking, because it feels more like a normal conversation and less like holding forth into the void.

          1. Joe BW Smith on 18.08.2011 at 16:20 (Reply)

            Preaching is an interesting conversation–it depends on the tradition and the space involved. In my tradition, preaching is mostly a one way conversation. Culturally, this issue will have to be addressed in my tradition, because more and more, people expect to be heard. I have seen speakers (occasionally a preacher) who will pluck questions from a twitter stream. There are a lot of variables in this equation. I have not done the preaching twitter stream myself, but I imagine a day in the not to distant future where I will need to be prepared to operate in such a way. If the message I deliver is to be heard, I need to consider the tools available.

  4. Barb Markway on 17.08.2011 at 14:15 (Reply)

    I am reporting in! I have researched Toastmasters groups and e-mailed all the clubs I’ve found (and none have e-mailed back)…but there is one tomorrow at noon that I am planning to go to as a visitor. I hope I don’t show up and no one is there! It’s a 45 minute drive. If no one is there, I’ll just have to shop :)

    1. Susan Cain on 17.08.2011 at 19:06 (Reply)

      Well there are worse things than shopping…let us know how it goes, and if anyone is actually there. It’s odd actually that no on is writing back to you. I haven’t had that experience. Was there only one e-mail address listed for each club or could you try other members?

      1. Barb Markway on 18.08.2011 at 14:08 (Reply)

        Yea, I made it to my first TM meeting! I’m a big believer in accountability. I’m pretty sure I would have found an excuse not to go if I hadn’t committed to it on this blog. It was a good experience! Will write more later…

        1. Susan Cain on 19.08.2011 at 11:06 (Reply)

          That is great to hear, Barb! Look forward to full report later.

  5. Kristi on 17.08.2011 at 14:38 (Reply)

    I have become supremely conscious of my ummms after a friend pointed them out to me after a speaking engagement. That awareness has caused me to mentally trip up on occasion since (“Shoot! I said ‘ummm’! I wonder how long it lasted. Have I been doing it a lot? Wait, what am I saying now??”). So I think I’ll try to find that nice balance – being aware of my speaking patterns, but accepting of the occasional ummms that make an appearance.

  6. Susan B on 17.08.2011 at 18:14 (Reply)

    Toastmaster newbie: I gave my 6-minute icebreaker speech last week. Overall it went pretty well. My goal for my second speech is to use cards, not a printout of my talk (even though I tried to use it as a guide and not read it). Also to speak more slowly. The VP of education for my club videoed me, which I just (gulp) watched – and managed to live through the experience. In fact it was very helpful. My club doesn’t count ums because they said it made people too self-conscious – but I think I could benefit from it.

    1. Susan Cain on 17.08.2011 at 19:07 (Reply)

      I think videotaping is ridiculously useful.

      What was your icebreaker about?

  7. Andrea on 17.08.2011 at 18:16 (Reply)

    As a Toastmaster, I too agree that there are many speakers who use filler words so often that it drowns the message. After some practice, it can change once we are aware. In addition, there are other physical actions that we tend to repeat without knowing. Ultimately, this dance of awareness is helpful but more importantly we must speak with authenticity and passion. With that combination, the validity of what we share is established. Even in speaking, filler words in moderation can sometimes be okay too. Thanks for sharing this international twist on “ums” and helping us look at this a little differently Susan!

  8. Susan McCamey on 18.08.2011 at 07:25 (Reply)

    I am a behavioral health trainer and I once had someone count the number of “Ums” I said in a 90 minute training and wrote on the review that I should go to toastmasters. The rest of the reviews were overwhelmingly positive, however and I have become a highly requested trainer in my area due to how well I connect with my audience and how inspiring people say I am. Thanks for this post as it validate my experience and reassures me about my “ums….”

  9. Becky on 18.08.2011 at 10:11 (Reply)

    My Toastmasters experience (a few years ago) was wonderfully valuable. I found “um” counting to be a useful awareness tool; it helped me notice a number of speaking tics. I found a slient pause to be a really good “filler” – it keeps the audience quieter and holds their attention, and made me feel relaxed and dramatic as a speaker. I don’t think that “ums” here and there undermine a speaker’s credibility. But great public speaking is an art form, and the best speakers I know keep filler sounds to a minimum.

    In interpersonal speaking (i.e. normal conversation), ums and ahs hold the floor – they let other people know you aren’t done talking yet, so they’re less likely to interrupt.

    As an introvert, I love public speaking, because it gives me an opportunity to connect and feel heard with plenty of preparation ahead of time, and without being interrupted or “talked over” by someone louder or bolder than I.

    I often think what I’ve heard described as “long thoughts.” In ordinary social conversation, it’s rude and boring to hold forth for too long, which means I am unable to share a complete thought; rapid wit is not one of my gifts. But even a short formal talk – 5-7 minutes – allows plenty of time to express one idea in relative fullness.

    1. Susan Cain on 19.08.2011 at 11:09 (Reply)

      Now that is fascinating, Becky. I keep coming across introverts like you who love public speaking. The studies I’ve seen show that introverts are more likely to be apprehensive about it than extroverts (though obviously stage fright strikes all kinds) yet I’ve met a distinct subset like you who honest-to-goodness love it and even prefer it, as you say, to regular conversation. Curious whether you loved it from the start, or whether it was an acquired taste for you. I am learning to love it because it’s such a valuable way to transmit ideas, but that’s different I think from what you’re talking about.

  10. Cliff Lewis on 19.08.2011 at 12:54 (Reply)

    I was really happy to read this post. I learned public speaking in the Dale Carnegie course, and no one ever said anything about fillers. I am an experienced teacher and am now fairly comfortable with public speaking as long as I know what I am talking about. I tried going to a Toastmasters meeting once, and the counting of uhs and ums really turned me off. That was one reason I never went back. I can think of only one time that I was distracted by someone using fillers, and that was an English teacher in high school whom I already disliked.

  11. Tim on 05.04.2012 at 03:55 (Reply)

    Agreed – I worked for a sales training company that tried to coach the uhms and ahs out of us. Not their fault, I think they were trying to perfect the art of good conversations with clients, and I think we are conditioned to believe that the perfect speech doesn’t have any trip ups, the perfect pauses and certainly no uhms and ahs, as this could put across a lack of confidence.

    However, I have heard hundreds of speeches, and the most authentic are those where the speaker is just being themselves, and not trying to fit a mould. I understand the importance of structure, however, I feel it should be left loose for personal interjection and style – far more effective.

    I am so glad I read through this website, and came across Susan Cain, she is doing great work for us introverts.

  12. Hugo Larsson on 13.04.2012 at 14:08 (Reply)

    Hi. I’m one of those introverts who somehow wound up doing radio for a while and eventually became an interpreter (French-English and English-French). Like the people you describe in your book, deep one-on-one conversations were never a problem, but small talk was considerably painful. However, I was blessed with a voice many people would kill for and my diction has generally been excellent, so people would EXPECT me to speak. Both my radio and interpretation training have emphasised getting rid of ahs and ums. It’s one thing to be on stage or at a lectern giving a speech. When you’re heard on the radio or through a set of headphones, the ahs and ums become highly noticeable and irritating. On the other hand, pauses (complete silence) are very acceptable for interpreting. It simply means the interpreter is hard at work trying to find the best way to convey the message in another language.
    I don’t think counting ahs the way Toastmasters does is necessarily bad. Sometimes, a well-placed “Hmmmm” can show one is in deep thought. It’s a matter of moderation. If a person only says ah five times in five minutes during a prepared speech, that’s actually quite good in my opinion. Let’s also not forget that sometimes genuine words are overused, especially sentences that start with the words like, and, so.

  13. brainysmurf on 24.09.2012 at 18:21 (Reply)

    Very thought-provoking and fascinating to hear about the history of umness and how there are introverts who love public speaking. Unfortunately, the first thing I thought of when I saw this article was a post-secondary class near two decades ago in which the professor said um or ah about 765 times in 90 mins. I started a tally early in that lecture and couldn’t stop because it was equally compelling and painful. The math works out to average of 8.5 interruptions per minute or once every 7 seconds. Perhaps it was a tic. It was so distracting and seemingly unprofessional that I dropped the class as soon as possible.

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