Getting Rid of…um…Verbal Graffiti


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One of the questions that I am most frequently asked about speaking anxiety is “How can a presenter reduce the number of ‘uh’s’ and ‘um’s’?” These disfluencies, sometimes referred to as “verbal graffiti” or “vocal tics,” appear to be universal – academics have found that every culture has them and that they can make up to 20% of the words spoken in everyday conversation. What people say when they fill their pauses vary, though. North Americans tend to say “um” and “uh,” while those from Asia are more likely to say “ah” and “oh.”

Regardless of what you say or where you are in the world, the fact of the matter is that you don’t plan to use disfluencies when presenting. They are the unconscious byproduct of thinking while speaking, and they happen much more frequently if that thinking occurs when you are speaking in more formal presentation situations. While “um’s” and “uh’s” occur in casual conversation, they are far more frequent when public speaking. Unlike conversation, where we share the speaking duties with others, the pressure of having everyone listening to us seems to invite us to fill our thinking pauses.

However, not all disfluencies are experienced in the same way by your audience. “Um’s” and “uh’s” within sentences are not perceived as frequently, nor are they as bothersome as those that occur between thoughts. Your audience often skips over mid-sentence disfluencies because they are focused on your content and not your verbal delivery. But, disfluencies as you move from one point to the other stand out because your audience is no longer “distracted” by what you are saying. In essence, you are violating your audience’s expectation of a silent pause by filling the silence.

Verbal graffiti littering your presentations leads your audience at a minimum to perceive you as nervous. However, many disfluencies also lead to perceptions of deceit or being unprepared. Additionally, disfluencies can be very distracting for your audience. They begin to count your disfluencies, rather than focus on what counts – namely your content. So, you need to reduce disfluencies to be seen as a more confident, credible communicator and to help your audience focus on your message.

The following two techniques will assist you in eliminating disfluencies:

First, gain conscious control over using disfluencies. To do this, you need someone to notify you every time you say “um” or “uh” while presenting. This notification can come in the form of a raised hand, a clap, or in my case, a request for service bell like those found in hotels. By notifying you of your disfluencies immediately after you speak them, you begin to become consciously aware of your saying them. Once aware, and over time, you can begin to reduce the frequency of your disfluencies because they are more under your control.

Second, when ending your sentences, especially your major points, do so on an exhale. By doing this, you must necessarily start your next thought with an inhalation. It is impossible to say “um” while inhaling. In addition to eliminating between thought disfluencies, your inhalation brings a pause with it, which has the added benefit of giving your audience a break to process your ideas, while fulfilling their expectation that you will briefly stop speaking prior to moving on.

As a speaker, you want your audience to be compelled by your message and not distracted by your delivery. You want them to see you as confident, not nervous or deceitful. By addressing disfluenices, you achieve both of these goals.