Awkward Pauses: The Value of “Um, Er and Uh” in Public Speaking

Last year I did several talks where one of the most important points I wanted to make  is that our desire to be effective public speakers is undermined when we make it our goal to be perfect public speakers. Everyone has something they could do better but focusing on these issues too much can make us anxious and undermine our performance. You want to be aware of the things you can do better and make an effort to implement them whenever you can.  But don’t feel like any little mistake is going to ruin your whole presentation.

The example I always used was my habit of inserting an “um” into pauses while I’m talking. I’m usually not even aware of it while I’m speaking, but I’ve listened to recordings of myself enough to hear that it’s an issue. It’s not something I do a lot, and I probably do it less than most people. But I’d really prefer not to do it at all. Still, I wasn’t going to torture myself over it.

“You don’t want to have a tic that so bad that it’s distracting,” I’d tell my audiences.  “I knew an executive once who said “uh” so often that people would stop listening to what he actually had to say and start counting ‘uh’s for sport. But it’s not the end of the world if you say “um” every now and then.”

And then I’d pause and say “um”. Every time I gave the talk. I have different versions of the presentation on audio and video and I say “um” every time.

The first time I didn’t even realize what had happened, why the audience was laughing. Of course this could have been humiliating, but it was actually a perfect illustration of what I was talking about. I didn’t let it bother me and the audience didn’t think less of me. In fact, they seemed to think it was hilarious.

So, as a frequent “um”-er, I was happy to see my experience validated in this article from Slate. They’ve gathered up research (I love how Slate does these articles that use science to disprove common perceptions) to show that disfluencies like “um” and “ah” won’t really ruin your speech. In fact, they suggest that using filler words or syllables can actually improve your listeners’ ability to recall what you say and help them see you as more genuine. Being too polished, it seems, can make you sound “slick” or scripted.

Much better to sound like yourself than a salesperson.  Even if that includes some, er, awkward pauses.

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