The Umms have it.

I’m two and half minutes in and the ‘um count’ is up to 31.

As the Research Week RRADO, I had the pleasure to be heavily involved in Research Week in 2014 including speaking at a few sessions. At the “Reading of the Will” session (see recording here), I was asked to present the registrar perspective on what a quality educational program was. It was a very interesting session, but one I had to miss the last twenty minutes of due to other commitments. So I was listening to the recording to see what I’d missed and ended up listening to my own short contribution and being quite startled.

You see, I realized two things. The first is the one that everyone realizes when they hear their own voice: the, “I didn’t realize my voice sounds like that” moment. Yes it’s nasal and mumbled most the time, but that, at least, I was expecting. The second was exactly how frequently I say the word “umm” or “uh”. It’s just about every second word. I’m two and half minutes in and the ‘um count’ is up to 31.

I remember in primary school, a teacher picked on a friend of mine, who was notorious for this. We were giving oral presentations and she asked the class to count how many times he said ‘um.’ Despite his straining efforts, he would um every few words and we all laughed a little at his expense.

Clearly, I learnt nothing from that lesson, and despite having done public speaking a few times since then, I have a clear, classic, text-book case of “the um’s”. I’m four slides in a seven slide PowerPoint and the ‘um count’ is now 53. And one slide is a title page. This is getting ugly.

A quick internet search has told me now that my brain is waiting to catch up with my mouth and so the mouth uses filler sounds or words to fill the space. But I thought speech was slower than thinking, which is why we can read faster than we talk…Regardless, all these um’s make me look slow, unprepared and uncertain.

I’ve decided that now I’m aware of my brain’s complete inability to keep up with my mouth, resulting the dreary demolition of the spoken language, I’ll work on ways to improve it. There’s much to learn from watching yourself on video, or listening to a recording. Getting rid of filler words and sounds will allow your audience concentrate on the meaningful words and improve verbal communication.

So before you present at your next conference, be it online like at Research Week, or in person, take the time to practice with a recording too. You might just surprise yourself like I did. In the meantime, my roughly 8:45 minutes of speaking led to a total of 90 “um’s” which may just be a record. I’m off to watch The Kings Speech again and fire up my inner Geoffrey Rush.


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