Leaving ah... um... and uh... behind


Just what is it we are trying to say?

Stage actors memorize their lines. Most playwrights insist that actors deliver their lines exactly as written: nothing added, nothing omitted. For a number of reasons, freely improvising lines during the performance of a play is considered unprofessional. Occasionally an actor will “go up” and forget one of their lines. They may fumble for words as they struggle to recover, but among professional actors going up on your lines is rare.

Many technology managers who are called upon to give business presentations tell me that one of their biggest concerns is the frequency with which they find themselves fumbling for words, saying ah… and um... They want to be able to speak without notes and ad lib a bit, but they find themselves repeatedly defaulting to the “filler words” they consider unprofessional. Like uh... They ask if they too should try to memorize a speech or speak from prepared notes when giving a presentation.

Why we struggle

There are many reasons that nearly all of us use filler words to some degree when addressing a business audience, including but not limited to:

  • We forget what we wanted to say to say and are telegraphing to the audience, “I am thinking. This is the sound of me thinking.”
  • We dread silence (dead air time) and think a) we have to speak constantly to hold the audience’s attention or b) if we stop talking for even a second, someone will ask a hard question.
  • We don’t want to sound dull, so we filibuster with filler words trying to think of something more clever to say.
  • We are unduly nervous and comfort ourselves with the soothing vibrations that accompany our vocalizations of the sounds um… ah… and uh.
  • We don’t even realize that we are doing it.

Linguists argue that filler words can have inherent meaning. But that does not make them easier for an audience to listen to, or even sensible to the audience. “Disfluences”, as some categorize these words, are thought to consume as much as 6-10% of spontaneous speech. That means every six to ten words (like um… right now) a filler word can pop up in your speech (like uh… right now again.) That may be tolerable for the listener in a short conversation, but it is easy to see how riddling a 20 minute business presentation with disfluences can make a presenter seem and feel unprepared and/or unskilled before an audience.

Can anything be done?

Good actors do not simply memorize their lines and recite them. A good actor digs into the subtext of each line. They understand the motivation behind their speaking in the first place and their specific objective behind the speaking of each individual line. The rehearsal process is one of discovery. What is really going on over, under, in, and around each line? That means that if an actor “goes up” on a line they can recover more easily. Even though they may have momentarily forgotten the exact words they want to say, they don’t forget why they are there, what it is they are trying to accomplish, and what they urgently want from the other characters at that particular moment. They can ad lib more easily and effectively because they know what needs to be said, if not exactly how they wanted to say it. They do not need to embark on a disfluent hunt for ideas, and words to fit those ideas.

Similarly, it is essential that presenters understand their motive in addressing any particular audience. They need to understand the subtext of what it is they are saying. What is the essential message, and meaning of that message, that needs to be communicated to the audience? The presenter needs to be wholly focused on and committed to achieving one and only one objective: delivering that essential message to the audience. When a presenter starts to um… uh…. and ah….it is usually because they are focused on how they want to read their lines and worrying about what it is that they think the audience wants to hear. They are not focused on what it is that the audience needs to know.

What you can do

  • If you remember what it is that needs to be said, not how you want to say it, the right words will come.
  • Focus only on the essential message. Don’t worry about all the other things you could be saying or the myriad ways in which you could be saying them.
  • Keep your comments brief and answers short. It is always best to leave your audience wanting more, and brevity is the soul of wit (Shakespeare).
  • Focus on the listener (in this case the audience.). Are they getting the message? When a presenter starts to stall out it is usually because they are listening to themselves rather than focusing on the listener.
  • Do not be afraid to boldly state what seems obvious. Are you speaking plainly enough for the audience? That is how you ensure that everyone is on the same page.
  • A little silence is O.K. You always have permission to be silent for up to 3 seconds before the audience starts to get nervous or attempts to inject a question. You do not need to replace every um… or ah… with silence, but do not be afraid to let the audience SEE you think for a second. You don’t always have to TELL them you are thinking.
  • Do not equivocate. It is perfectly fine to admit you do not know the answer to something as long as you know where to go to get the answer.

There is nothing that says you must eradicate every single ah, um and uh from your presentation. But these words introduce noise and you should be attempting to reduce noise not create it. If you want to memorize something, memorize a simple and clear description of how any technology you are describing actually works. That soliloquy can be a showstopper.

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