The Seven Deadly Sins of Public Speaking (and how to avoid them) #2

Sin #2 Umm, Ahh, I forget what it is

Here s/he comes, the respected speaker from the land of Ummble. S/he mounts the stage with the grace of a hunting panther, looks deep into the eyes of the audience and says the immortal line:

“Umm, I’m, ah, very, umm, glad to uh-uhm, be here, umm, today.”

Ah yes, the sin of the audible pause. Now, of course, any good linguist would tell you that audible pauses are a normal part of spoken language. They give our brains a vital few seconds to put together what we are going to say and can even act as feedback mechanisms to tell people we are listening.

Great. Fine. But they sound horrible when made by public speakers!

Why might this be? Well, in the first place, too many ahs, umms and ehs make it sound as if the speaker has lost the plot and their place in their notes. Unkind audiences actually expect that you could stop the speaker at any random point in their talk and start them again five minutes later without so much as a second thought. Kinder audiences expect the speaker to know their talk to well that hesitations are a rarity, even if you do need to check your notes occasionally.

Audible pauses do many things. They make you seem less confident. They make you seem hesitant and they make you seem less knowledgeable. Now, the truth might indeed be that you lack confidence, are very hesitant and have been thrown in the deep end at the last minute to talk on a subject you aren’t an expert on. Still, letting all that show is rarely what you are after.

So, how do you drop the audible pause? The first solution is simply to be aware you are doing it. While I have not been big on audible pauses, I did used to have the related sin: the nervous fiddle. Rings, notes, books, anything and everything I was wearing or was even near could be twiddled and played with while I talked. It was all very distracting. However, once someone pointed out that I was doing all that, the very fact of being aware of it made me able to stop. Whenever I would feel the urge, it would be a conscious urge and I could say no.

The same applies to audible pauses. Be brave enough to video yourself or ask someone else to watch you and see how many times you umm or ah throughout your presentations. If this is a problem, make yourself aware of it. Whenever you feel the urge, just finish your sentence and then drink water or pause silently instead.

The best long-term solution however, is to attack the root cause. Are you speaking while being under-prepared or under-rehearsed? Do you suffer from nervousness that is difficult to control? Are you having trouble transitioning from reading from a script to going to just notes? Do you feel like you don’t know enough to speak on the subject? If so, get help with that specific problem and the umms, ahs and ehs should disappear.


About Jonathan Downie

I am a conference interpreter, public speaking coach, preacher and researcher.
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