I was recently interviewed, for a Podcast, about public speaking – general advice on how to engage; how to feel confident; and so on. The interviewer, Andy, commented that I didn’t seem to “um and ah” very much, and, on listening back to the recording, a realised he’s right! I did do a little, but not a distracting amount, of “umming and ahhing”. But I know that I do normally do that as part of every day speech, so it got me wondering why I do it less in those more formal settings.
After all, it’s not because I’m 100% comfortable – those of you who’ve worked with me know I’ve talked about my first-hand experience of nerves and fear. I get nervous, just like lots of other people. The difference is, I know how to limit the physiological impact of those nerves, and thus the fall-out for my performance is limited, too.
So, #1: learn how to handle the symptoms of fear so that you can communicate confidently and coherently.
Essentially, though, it’s because I’m sure of my topic. I’m not saying I know it all – every day’s a school day, after all – but I feel confident when talking about my own experiences and the knowledge I’ve gained about successful public speaking. If Andy had asked me a question about, say, a premier league football team’s performance this season, I’d have fallen back on those vocal crutches and ummed and aahed my way through my responses, simply because I’m not confident in my level of knowledge.
Lesson #2, then: know your subject, inside out and back to front.
Because, had I been talking about football, I’d have had a problem to deal with: my thoughts would’ve been forming at the same time as I was trying to express them. I’d have had to buy myself time, with “fillers” like um and ah, whilst I formulated my response and tested it out in my own head.
We live in a fast-paced world, and the expectation is that we will answer a question as soon as we’re spoken to, before the moment has passed – before something else has come along , or we’ve been interrupted (I notice this particularly in clients who have struggled in childhood to get a word in edgeways, either as part of a noisy family or as the youngest child whose views were dismissed). That habitual need for us to grab the mic and give a view means we have to verbalize our thinking time – justifying our time in the limelight – using words and noises to show we’re still “on” and people shouldn’t give up on us!
Another fashionable filler word used at the start of a sentence is “so”. Ask a young person what they think about something, or what their plans are for the weekend, and their response will often begin with, “So”. This habit is creeping up the generations (I’m guilty of it myself, sometimes) and it has the effect of making you sound young – not necessarily the impression you want to give as a grown-up professional (a bit like the verbal habit of going up at the end of a sentence, which also has – amongst other things – youthful associations).
So, (hah!) lesson #3: don’t fear the pause. We’re sometimes a bit scared of silence, but taking time to consider a response allows you to construct your sentence more coherently in your head before you verbalise it. Don’t speak until you’re ready!
And my final lesson, #4, is to embrace imperfection. It’s normal to um and ah, and a few of those fillers are actually likely to connect you with your also-imperfect listener. Natural speech is, for most of us, full of inadequacies. We usually arrive at the end of a verbal sentence far less efficiently than we do a written one – we’ll have stuttered, used the wrong words, ummed and aahed…. When we write, we are constantly deleting and rewriting (I’ve done it at least five times in this paragraph alone). But if you allow your mind to talk to you while you’re talking out loud – trying to edit you as you speak – you’ll start to overthink what you’re saying and stumble your way through, using all sorts of vocal crutches to help you on your way.
Too much umming and ahhing makes you sound hesitant, and that makes your job of gaining trust much more difficult. It’s also VERY painful for an audience to listen to. When you’re prepping for your next interview or presentation, record yourself and, as you listen back, take note of how much you’re verbalising your hesitations. And if you need help overcoming that hurdle, you know where I am!