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Old Habits Die Hard


by Claudia W. Brogan

Several years ago, I joined a local Toastmasters club in order to improve and become more practiced in my speaking skills. In the first club that I visited, I noticed an odd method that they used: each time that a speaker would say “um” in a presentation, a member would ring a little silver bell. Apparently, the intention was to quickly get the speaker’s attention so that he or she would notice they said “um” and correct that action. This technique is apparently based on Pavlov’s experiments in classical conditioning, and I’m sure it was done with good intentions.

But as a speaker who was there to practice and learn new, effective speaking behaviors, I found that the ringing bell just alarmed me. It definitely seemed to interrupt the flow of presenters. It’s more a shaming thing than a teaching thing, and it didn’t seem to yield improved speaking habits.

Another method I have seen used in some Toastmasters clubs is that of tallying the number of “um’s” by each speaker, then reporting the numbers to the full group at the close of the meeting. As an educator and a coach, I am not persuaded that that action is useful for speakers who want to reduce the number of “um’s.” Shaming a speaker doesn’t build new, effective habits: what does it tell me to hear that I have 23 “um’s,” other than to be embarrassed in front of my peers?

For speakers, teachers, and presenters, it can be daunting and even frustrating to break old habits when we are practicing our speaking skills. So it’s refreshing to come across practical tips that will provide good insight about ways we can improve our public speaking skills.

Steven D. Cohn, a writer and instructor at the Harvard Division of Continuing Education, states that he dreads listening to political speeches. Not because of a fear of hearing the words “inflation” or “deflation,” not even knowing that he’ll hear “deficit” and “across the aisle.” But instead, Cohn finds himself bracing for the barrage of “uh’s” and “um’s” that he is bound to hear in these speeches.

Cohn observes that there are two key points in a speech when we deliver “um’s” most frequently. The first is at the beginning of a new statement; the second is in between two ideas.

“You can think of these two ‘filler word hot spots’ in the context of a two-paragraph essay. The first hot spot would be the tab before the first paragraph, and the second hot spot would be the white space between the first and second paragraphs,” reports Cohn.

Understanding those two “hot spots” is helpful for us speakers. Once we frame it like this, we can be clear to determine the key “chunks” of our material—as if writing the outline on the back wall with a separate box for each of our separate points. Having clear sections delineated in our thoughts will help us know when to finish one portion clearly, then pause, then use a bridging statement to move into the next section distinctly. This will help us substantially reduce our number of filler words if we are ready with phrases to introduce the new upcoming information. An example of this is, “That leads us to our second principle…” or “The next key point I’d like to make is…” Being ready with clear bridging statements will keep the speaker from feeling lost or hesitant. Having a good clear mental map of our speech will mean we’re less likely to create filler words for ourselves along the way, to say “uh” and “um” and introduce new sentences with “So…”

Instead of ringing a bell or tallying the number of filler-word errors that you made when speaking, I suggest this three-point plan. This is useful when trying to correct old habits, including the example of reducing the number of “um’s” in our speaking patterns. This plan can be called the “A—K—A” plan, meaning Awareness, Knowledge, Action.


The first step before I can begin to address the frequency of “um’s” in my speech is becoming more aware. Increasing my awareness—not only of my speaking patterns but paying close attention as well to other speakers also—brings this habit into clear focus. When I watch people speak in news clips, deliver official speeches, or give informational talks to their staffs, the first step to fix my habits is to become vividly aware of what a string of filler words actually sounds like, and what it feels like to hear a string of “um’s” by speakers.


The second step to help myself make improvements is to gather knowledge as to why this is a problem. For instance, when I pay close attention, I will notice that as a listener, I lose concentration and focus when a speaker uses many filler words. My mind wanders, and I can easily lose the train of thought. In addition, I notice as a listener that this presenter’s credibility is decreased when I hear them use filler words. A speaker who interrupts with “um’s” and other filler words starts to sound hesitant and unsure, depicting a lack of familiarity with the topic or a lack of conviction or enthusiasm about the ideas that they are proposing. So when I, as an aspiring speaker, pay attention to and collect this kind of observational knowledge, it will become much more clear to me why it matters to improve this kind of speaking habit. Noticing my reactions helps me to know the importance of making improvements.


That leads me logically to the third step, which is action. The more I practice speaking and consciously reduce the number of “um’s” that I say, the stronger my skills become. We can’t “practice” fixing our old habits just by doing mental exercises or noticing more attentively: we also need to volunteer to give talks more frequently, or to speak up often in meetings, or to be one who gives verbal directions, in order to actively practice new behaviors.

Using this approach—Awareness, Knowledge, Action—is the sequence that I use when trying to practice new habits. I can’t just “think my way through it.” It’s important that I first pay close attention to examples of the old habit so I see why it’s a problem. Then I’ll study, observe, and ask advice about knowledge that I can use when acquiring new behaviors and habits. Finally, I know that I will only improve by doing, by seeking out good opportunities to take action, and practice the new habits.

Old habits do indeed die hard. One frequent old habit for speakers can be saying “um” in speeches. Paying close attention and practicing new skills will help us each become more effective speakers who can hold the focus and interest of our listeners.

To close out this post, I’d like to share with you this intriguing infographic with powerful tips from the London Speakers Bureau. I find it useful and keep it “in my toolkit” with its excellent reminders I can use when trying to correct these old speaking habits.


Claudia Brogan is a speaker, trainer and facilitator who helps organizations by coaching presenters, leading collaborative meetings and problem-solving with groups and teams. Reach out to see how she can help you. Contact Claudia via email at claudiabrogan @ gmail.com, through LinkedIn, or by phone at 404-849-5182.