Friday, March 27, 2009

Um, Er, Like, Uh

Because of my training work in public speaking over the past twenty years, I tend to interact with a lot public speakers who have strong opinions and 'rules' about verbal communication.

Because there are always some people who give as little effort as possible to their work, I have heard my fair share of public speaking assumptions and theories stated as facts by some of these public speaking gurus.

I need to clear something up. I need to clear it up based on my life of listening, study, and open-mindedness: Fillers are OK.

"Oh no he did'n!"

"Yeah, gurl. I totally did."

Unless you are one of the masterful top 1% of verbally talented and trained public speakers, do not fret about fillers. Fillers are what bean counter minds like to tally mark about another speaker at a speech training seminar. Ever heard of majoring in the minor? If you hone in on fillers as your main coaching point, you have no idea what you are doing. Stop It.

Now, yes, I know that too much of anything can be annoying. But what constitutes overuse of a filler is based on so many factors besides one listener's opinion - factors like, um, everyone else in the room. Because there are no defined rules in the court of public speaking law, somehow the rule of speaking just defaulted into: NEVER USE A SINGLE FILLER.

But that rule is wrong. It is a 'letter of the law' rule rather than a 'spirit of the law' rule. Let me do my best to persuade you.

For most speakers, being lasik-precise with one's language distracts the speaker's focus from hitting the intended message. If played out to its robotic end, this incessant filler-focus can, as Gordon Sumner said, dehumanize yourself. Practice avoiding filler when you are in everyday conversation with your friends or in inconsequential circumstances. Game time is not the time to try new moves unless they are well-rehearsed.

Again, yes, I understand annoyance due to overuse. I am aware of this. I am aware. I am. The problem is that a lot of people with a little knowledge are a dangerous body of rule makers. "Fillers" can actually serve a linguistic purpose. They are often called "discourse markers" by linguists, because they help listeners better understand meaning within spoken communication. Read this PDF for researched and studied details.

If you are watching a video clip of a comic from a performance in front of a paying audience, chances are that he/she is in the top slice of successful comedians, because most never make it past five-minute open mic night at Chuck's. When you listen to a comedian, chances are good that you will hear fillers. Whether you like a comic's humor or not, these people engage in arguably the most difficult and elusive communication objective on the planet: get a room full of total strangers to laugh using nothing but your live communication to drive the outcome. They know what they are doing with language, purposefully and intuitively. Comedians use fillers to create comic timing, characterization, 'relatability', and to get specific reactions and subtle points across.

Fillers can be either a purposeful style or unintentional, based on social factors such as age, gender, immediate friends, or role models. And certain words become more or less prevalent in our speech depending on the social dynamic of the moment. Personally, when I am in front of a group, my fillers drop significantly because my training of mastering concise word choice increases, and my language becomes more visually descriptive. When I am more relaxed and off-the-cuff, or I am telling a funny or personal story, my language is more kinesthetic and emotion-based. In those moments I feel my way through the conversation more, so fillers pop up more often.


Nobody except novices and the less successful or respected public speakers ever give me feedback after a public speaking event about how I need to eliminate any of my fillers, even though I virtually always use them. That is because when we have a powerful message and are able to create emotion in the speaking we do, the individual moments of individual words become unimportant to the audience.


Keith Watson said...

Great article Steve - and just to let you know found this via Twitter - much more powerful than Google

Steve said...

Twitter is the sweetness, pure and delightful. Thanks for the read!

Amy Smith said...

The fastest way to connect to any audience is through what you are saying and your passion for what you are saying.It doesn't matter if there is an uh or an um if what you are saying is rich and your emotions come through people will listen. We have all been to a polished speakers key note and have struggled to stay awake or even be mildly interested. Know your craft and stay away from majoring in the minors!

Walt Gordon Jones said...

Very insightful, and makes a lot of sense!

Phil said...

Personally, listening to a speaker who keeps going "uh", "um", "you know", "sort of" -- endlessly -- it throws me off their message, and I'm just unable to focus on what they are trying to say because it is so broken up. Maybe I'm in the minority, but I think striving for 0 fillers is important. A couple uh's here and there aren't a speech breaker, but too much of it becomes a main factor of wanting to leave the room/turn off the recording. When everything begins with "uh", or worse yet intellectual filler (e.g. "That was a good question, you said a lot there, so I'm going to have to take some time to respond to it, so bear with me." Yeah, really?)

Anonymous said...

Ain't it the way, that with everything in life, it's a matter of balance. If your filler words are far too frequent throughout your message to your audience. Guess What? - they will become a distraction. So that is why Speaking Coaches will say "lessen your filler words equals lessen your distractions." Not because we are "Filler Nazis - but believe me, when your Fillers become a distraction they detract from your message. Detracting from your message means you have to work 150%to achieve 100%. That can't be a good thing, can it?

Steve Arrowood said...

I am also a speaking coach, and the most impactive speakers I know have so many more powerful things going on than their lack of fillers (relatability, humor, relevance, pacing).

I stand by the belief that 'fillers' are only a problem when they are (1) used to the degree that they are actually being used to fill, and (2) used in potentially game changing moments