Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Every Time A Pastor Says "Um", He Makes God Cry

Presentation trainer Olivia Mitchell's post How Obama could eliminate his ums (and so could you) voices a more open mind to the 'filler' conundrum than most communication trainers I meet. You should read it.

Yes, the problem of public speaking coaches tallying people's non-words like "um" is widespread, but the problem is not with the people giving the speeches - it is with the coaches.

This coaching is misguided because it focuses on just a technical aspect of language. When we over-coach this way, we allow linguistics to strangle meaning and intent. I think we do it because it's an easy thing to hear, and it is concrete. And it annoys some listeners because they have a personal filter from which they hear and are aggravated by certain words.

Anyone who has trained people in presentation and delivery has heard fellow trainers - maybe even ourselves at times - ruthlessly target "um". But when did this become The 11th Commandment of public discourse? Did the disciples nail Jesus for using fillers when he spoke to crowds on a hill? ("Well, sure the idea is good and all - do unto others and whatnot - but he just really didn't sound credible when he sort of sighed and said 'erm' before he started talking. Let's go listen to some other speakers who are more successful.")

Undue attention has been given to Obama for his non-words in moments where he is off-script. The pundits cry, "Oh, he's really not that good at public speaking if you listen - you can hear all kinds of 'ums' and 'ahs'. He's unsure! He's not confident! He's... a democrat."

Well, apparently saying "um" did not make a difference for scoring the job of President of the United States. (Although, let's be fair, it is just a temp job).

Quick Quiz: who is the overall most famous professional speaker in the US over the past 30 years? Yes, Anthony Robbins. Regardless of your personal opinions on him, he is massively popular, and I bet for the most part he could care less about the occasional use of non-words. In the first five seconds of his TED speech he says "uh".

Back to a point I've made before - nearly everybody occasionally commits this travesty of speech where we allow ourselves to actually be in the moment and think while in front of people. And I for one am thankful that public speaking is not always rehearsed.

If it is important to you to stop using non-words, or you want to coach others, the vital first ingredient of learning is awareness. What are the situations that motivate us to inadvertently utter 'non-words'?

  1. We are processing at a deeper level than surface thoughts or well-rehearsed phrases, while at the same time we feel the expectations of people around us to speak.
  2. We were asked a question and feel social pressure to start speaking quickly or we will look dumb.
  3. We are running out of allotted time and feel pressure.
  4. We pressure ourselves to sound like what we think an expert should sound like.
  5. We don't want someone else to start speaking yet.

The result of these circumstances is often a short, unplanned auditory sound to fill the space. Non-words are behavior we learn from the moment we begin to learn language, hearing adults think out loud as they answer one of our questions about where babies come from.

These sounds are an unconscious device to fulfill the purpose of cueing people that we intend to deliver a message, that we have more to say. Yes, some artful speakers such as comedians more fully understand the value of these words as sounds, transitional devices, and timing tools, but generally, trying to kill all non-words can actually hinder the goals of public communication.

People who speak professionally like Laura Bergells tell of clients being weirded out by 'perfect' speech patterns of no "ums". Their point is important: If you are meant to be in a conversation and want to be natural with us, please don't lose the 'human' in you.

And yes, before we all go off and start being far too easy on our language patterns, I must be clear that I do strongly believe there are many times when non-words should be eliminated. Always keep key phrases that are intended to ring, resonate, and resound, spotlessly clean.

"I have a...uh...dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where, um, they will not be judged by the color of their skin but, erm, by the content of their character. OK?"


Laura Bergells said...

Perfect? Oh, gosh no. Far from it!

My failure to "um it up a bit" makes me look sterile and robotic. I also have an obnoxious habit of an intense stare -- this is also unnerving to most.

Add silence to this -- and it's downright cringeworthy. An "um" is far more human (and humane.)

I'm, uh, working on it!

Steve Arrowood said...

It's a bit tricky, isn't it? I mean, most people can understand the theory behind allowing ourselves to humanize with accidental non-words from time-to-time, but you can't 'um' on purpose - it just doesn't work.

Olivia's point about putting the focus on another area of speaking is really what is needed (e.g. chunking), otherwise we can get caught in over-analyzing our speech and tripping even more.

Anonymous said...

You asked: "But when did [umlessness] become The 11th Commandment of public discourse?" In my book, Um...: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What they Mean, I answer this question: It happens early in the 20th century in America, only after oratory has become public speaking and only after technologies (the phonograph and the microphone) froze the voice and upended the old standards and methods for speaking. I went to ancient Greek and Roman rhetorical texts as well as 19th century American handbooks on oratory and pronunciation, and found no specific prescription to remove "uh" or "um" (or whatever the filled pause in that language would have been). I could say more, but it's all in the book.

I like this post a lot, and the ethos of speaking that moves us away from over-rehearsed, scripted performances to improvised interactions. This shift (which is partly generational, I'd argue) explains the rise in improv comedy as a training ground for presentations, and anyone who's done improv will tell you that when you're focused, yes anding in the moment, that the filled pauses don't impede the interaction, but lubricate it.

Michael Erard

Chicka Elloy said...

I was interested on your thoughts of this article.

Steve Arrowood said...

Michael, thanks for the comment and reference to your book. I appreciate that you seem to be pursuing the understanding of these words and sounds, and not the blind elimination due to accepting hand-me-down statements and teachings.