Mother Tongue Annoyances

Mother Tongue Annoyances

Tim's weblog on English communication
How to Lose the 'ums' and 'ahs' from Your Speech

Hey there. One of my largest pet peeves as an audience member, I have to admit, is a platform speaker who does not have his or her 'ums' or 'ahs' under control. Sure, these involuntary 'placeholder' or 'filler' noises are understandable in their way. However, in my opinion, one of the hallmarks of a professional teacher, trainer, or public speaker is that his or her speech just f-l-o-w-s as naturally as possible, and is relatively or completely free from extraneous filler words. In this blog post I will share a technique that has helped me to solve this problem.

I learned how to stop the 'ums' during my first year of teaching, and the technique that I was shown was quite simple:

Record yourself teaching or giving a lecture, and study your own speech afterward.

Over the past couple of years I have been doing a great deal of computer-based training (CBT) development work; accordingly, through editing these QuickTime movies of my teaching, I've had the opportunity to listen to my own voice for hours and hours on end.

Furthermore, when you edit your own CBT movies you're constantly snipping out otherwise innocuous mouth and lung sounds such as plosives, big in-breaths, lip smacks, et cetera. Therefore, I've become extraordinarily aware of the dynamics of my own speech.

I am not suggesting, necessarily, that you get into the instructional design gig to improve your public speaking skills. On the other hand, I do recommend that, if you are willing, that you set up your camcorder in your living room when you are home alone and you deliver one or more extemporaneous speeches—totally off-the-cuff material to catch your verbal language at its most spontaneous and natural.

After you have finished, observe your speech and study that thing. Over and over. Listen extremely closely to the dynamics of your language. We're not talking about narcissism here, folks. Instead, we are dealing with enlightenment and professional growth.

The best possible scenario is to capture an example of your speaking or teaching 'in the wild.' This way you can listen to how you sound in a 'production environment,' as it were. Believe me, when you hear how many times you use filler words, it will rattle you to your core, and you'll develop a newfound self-awareness that will help stanch your subconscious desire to use these filler words during your next class or public speaking event.

Now, to address a question that I have been asked numerous times by folks with whom I have shared this technique: "Won't doing this practice make me ultra self-conscious of my speech to the point where I'll go all OCD when I'm speaking?"

In my experience, this has not been the case. I'd be interested to know how many of you other instructors/professional speakers feel the same way as I do about this.

When I deliver a presentation, I have two distinct 'mindstreams' running concurrently and silently in my head:

  1. A 'content' mindstream, which contains the presentation proper
  2. A 'speaking dynamics' mindstream, which contains an audience- and self-monitoring 'system' (for lack of a better word)

I hope that this doesn't sound too weird.  Anyway, for me, I am able to stay both 'on point' with my presentation, as well as to regulate speaking mechanics stuff such as voice volume, modulation, "How's the time?" "How's the audience doing?" and so on.

I firmly believe that this ability to dual-task while teaching or speaking is, like the ability to play the piano or fly an airplane, something that can be developed with practice.

Have a nice day.


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