The Knights Who Say “Um…”

The other day, Ethan Banks (@ecbanks) tweeted a rather amusing thought while editing an episode of the Packet Pushers:

It’s rather easy to sympathize with Ethan on this.  I find myself very conscious of saying “um” when I’m speaking.  We’re all guilty of it.  “Um” is a buffering word, a form of speech disfluency.  People use it as a filler while buying time to think of a more complete thought.  Most modern languages have some form of it, whether it be “err” or “ehhh”.  Most public speakers have gone to great lengths to analyze their speaking methods to eliminate these pause words.  The results, however, seem to point to substitution instead of reconfiguration.

Listen to any presentation involving technical content and you are likely to hear the word “so” more frequently than you’d like.  I’m as bad as anyone.  Since that presentation, I’ve gone to great lengths to eliminate “so” from my speaking vocabulary as a pause word.  Sometimes, I do a pretty good job.  Other times, I don’t do as great of a job.  There are a few people that work in my office that are constantly looking for my uses of “so” and pointing them out when they happen.  It seems that no matter how hard I try, rather than eliminating pause words, I just replace them.  Even in my second presentation, I used “hallmark” a lot more than I should.  Even with a lot of rehearsal, going off the cuff on some things tends to introduce the moments of indecision and thought processes that end in “um”s and “err”s.

I would much prefer that non-verbal cues be given instead of these pause words.  Rather than filling the conversation with unnecessary words, you should use silence as a time to reflect and collect your thoughts.  Provided you aren’t speaking over the phone or via a VoIP conversation, silence shouldn’t be regarded as a negative thing.  By taking a little extra time to analyze your thoughts before you start speaking, you negate the need to fill dead speaking space with unneeded syllables.  An old saying goes, “A pipe gives the wise man time to reflect and the unwise man something to put in his mouth.”  You should treat silence just like the pipe.  Rather than spending time filling the conversation, really think about what you want to say before you say it.  There’s no shame in taking an extra second or two before saying something really insightful or interesting.

I like to record my presentations because it gives me a chance to analyze them at length afterward to see what I was doing wrong.  I don’t listen for content the second or third or fourth time.  Instead, I try to pick out all the verbal garbage and make mental notes to myself to remove it for the next time.  After my IPv6 presentation, I did my best to eliminate “so” from my presenting vocabulary.  Now that I’m conscious of saying it, I can concentrate more on avoiding it.  The same goes for other pause words and comfort sayings, like “basically” or “interestingly”.  Only by repeated viewings of my prior work can I see what needs to be improved.  I would encourage those out there reading this to do the same.  Have a friend record your presentation or do it yourself with a simple tripod setup.  When you’re finished, take the time to analyze yourself.  Be honest.  Don’t give yourself any quarter when it comes to your speaking strategy.  It may be hard to watch yourself on film the first few time you do it, but after a while you begin to realize all the good that it can do for you.  You also learn to start tuning out the sound of your own voice, but that’s a different matter entirely.

Tom’s Take

There’s nothing wrong with speech disfluency.  In moderation, that is.  Words like “um” and “err” should be treated like salt – some is good, but too much ruins the dish.  Instead, focus on being conscious of the pause words and eliminating them from your speaking habits.  Instead, use silence as the best way to fill the void.  You’ll look smarter spending your time thinking about questions and not worrying about what words to fill into the conversation.

3 thoughts on “The Knights Who Say “Um…”

  1. Hey Tom,

    Nice post! I totally agree with you. since I started posting videos, I’ve also become more aware of the verbal “fillers” that I use.

    Your recommendation of silence as a filler is great. I actually did half an education degree before I choose IT as a career path and one of the techniques they taught was to use a 2 second pause between thoughts.

    Not for you to catch your thoughts, but for the AUDIENCE to have time to absorb what we are saying. The speed of thought is far faster than the speed of mouth, so slowing down really helps.

    Theres a guy I know who is eloquent and polished a presenter as I’ve ever seen. No ums or uhs to be found. I discovered his secret. He’s a two fingered typer.

    This has forced him to use speech recognition software to create the Whitepapers and documents and presentations. I can sympathize with Ethan, but I can ony imagine having to do this same task in a typed format.

    After years, he’s virtually eliminated the need for proofing his content because of training,

    The great thing is that nice you are aware of that you are doing it, it’s at least possible to correctit.

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