Before I start a training or coaching program, I ask my clients to complete a simple self-assessment of their communications or presentation skills. It helps us both to focus on immediate needs. Very often, in assessing their own communication style, they lament the “ums” and “uhs” that pepper their delivery.
These vocal fillers are called “speech disfluency.” In everyday conversation they can make up to 20 percent of speech. But in public speaking they can disrupt the flow of your communications, and diminish your credibility. In fact, linguistic Michael Erard suggests it can get in the way of your audience fully understanding you.
So, like, why do I, uh, say ‘um’?
Linguistics researchers suggest that our reliance of these fillers may be a result of our emotional state as we speak. Primarily, we use these utterances as a placeholder while we think about what we are going to say. In other words, the less fully present you are in the moment, the more likely will resort to these fillers. If you are conscious of what you are saying at the exact moment when you are saying it, the less likely you will use these vocal crutches.
The Risk in Transitions
Researchers have found that the most likely places you use these fillers are in the transition — from a question to your answer or between ideas. Be mindful in these moments. Take an extra breath. Before you speak, consider what you will say. While you speak, focus in that moment.
These techniques require that you learn to feel comfortable with an extra beat or two of silence. This can be a mental hurdle, as those moments may evoke our sense of vulnerability. But you likely will have more credibility if you take a moment to gather your thoughts — a moment of silence carries more gravitas than someone’s stumbling around their words.