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Common Reasons People Use Ums and Ahs in Public Speaking – And How to Avoid Them (the Ums and Ahs, Not the People) – Part 1


Kelly VandeverIf you’re not familiar with Toastmasters, it’s the world’s leading organization for helping people get better at public speaking.  One of the ways they help people is there is a particular role that a member of a Toastmasters club plays during a meeting called the “Grammarian.”

It’s the grammarian’s job to listen for people saying filler sounds, such as “um” and “ah,” while people are speaking.  The grammarian also listens for common crutch phrases such as “you know,” “I mean,” “and so I’m like,” or any other repeated words or sounds that could distract from your message.  Toward the end of the meeting, the grammarian gives a report to let the individuals who have spoken during the meeting and lets them know how many and of what kind of grammar-related offenses they’ve committed.

In my first Toastmasters club, I became known as the Queen of ums and ahs… I typically have more than anyone else during the entire meeting!  Because of my own personal struggles and through coaching hundreds of other people, I’ve noticed there are certain times when the verbal filler is more prevalent.

In the next few posts, I’m going to go over the most common causes of the verbal filler afflictions and what to do to avoid the verbal filler that fits your circumstances.

If you’re struggling to control the verbal noise, check out these posts, see which situation seems to fit your usage, then apply the avoidance tips recommended.

I still have a few um and ah slips – but I’ve given up my crown as the queen of ums and ahs.  If you want to give up your crown, keep reading!


Common Causes of Ums and Ahs – and How to Avoid Them in Public Speaking

Common Cause #1 – Winging It Because You Know Your Subject So Well

I’ve noticed for myself and for those I coach, the ums and ahs seem to come out most when speaking off the cuff.  Those pesky verbal fillers are what we tend to do as we’re searching for the right word or phrase to express an idea.

I have known speakers who, because they knew their topic so well, thought they could get up and speak on the subject with no preparation or rehearsal.  In fact, if you listen to them in everyday conversation, they know their subject thoroughly and are so passionate about their subject that they can speak a steady stream without a distracting level of verbal fillers.

But something happens when they stand in the front of the room.  It’s different when the floor is yielded to you and everyone is watching and listening.  That’s why the solution to this cause of the ums and ahs, when you know you’re on the agenda or expect you may be called on, is preparation.  Don’t assume you can wing it.


Solution – Prepare Anyway

If you’re on the agenda to speak or expect that you might be called on to speak, prepare.

Decide What Points You’ll Make

You may not need to sit down and write out word for word what your presentation is going to be.  But do consider what your audience is interested in, how much time you’ll have and plan out the points you want to cover when you speak.

After you’ve decided the points you can make in your allotted time, practice saying what you’re going to say.

Practice Like You Plan to Deliver

Practice by standing up, saying the words out loud and pretending like you’re speaking to the actual audience.  Record yourself doing this rehearsal.  Listen to the recording.

Practicing what you’re going to say out loud will give you the opportunity to figure out where there are gaps in your flow so you can talk through what you will actually say when you present.

Practice and Listen

Practice multiple times.   Listen to the recording, paying special attention to your most common verbal fillers.  You don’t need to be perfect, but if you send the time, you’ll be able to replicate the flow that typically comes in normal conversation.

Take Advantage of Muscle Memory

By standing up and speaking in a similar manner as you will when you present, you give your body the muscle memory that will help your actual presentation go more smoothly.


Do You Agree?

Has this been your experience?  What else am I missing?  Please add your thoughts in the comments below!





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