Um, is your speech distracting your audience?

waveform of "um"I’ve heard about Toastmasters from several people over the years but never really knew what it was about. Last year, several people in my favorite networking group joined a new Toastmasters club in the area, and I decided to give it a try.

For those that don’t know, Toastmasters is “on-profit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills.” (from Toastmasters.org). Basically, the meetings are organized to allow 2-3 speakers give a short (average of 5-7) minute speech, and time for the speeches to be evaluated by the attendees at large and also by a specific evaluator. There’s also other things during the meeting, such as Table Topics (short 1-2 minute impromptu speeches on a given topic) and a general evaluation of the meeting overall.

One of the neat parts of a Toastmasters meeting, from my perspective, is the Grammarian and Ah-counter reports. At our club these roles are filled by the same person, but some clubs have them as separate roles.

The Ah-counter report is enlightening – especially when you’re the one speaking. At my first Toastmasters meeting, I volunteered to be a Table Topics speaker. During my 2-minute max speech, I had 9 “um”s – wow. Granted it was an impromptu speech, but still, that’s a lot of ums in such a short period of time.

What’s the big deal with ums? Well, they’re distracting. That tiny little two-letter filler word interrupts the flow of whatever you’re saying so it makes less of an impact. It also makes you sound less professional and unpolished.

This really hit home for me when I was listening to the recording of a webinar today. About 5 words into the webinar, the host launched an um. Maybe I have a new-found awareness of ums due to my association with Toastmasters, but I would think that you could make it through the first few sentences of a presentation without the um if you had practiced and prepared. The rest of the webinar was done interview style, with the host asking the guest questions. Presumably, though, these questions were shared with the guest before the webinar, so the frequent ums in her answers also seemed like she didn’t really know the information that she was presenting.

I’ve presented my first speech at Toastmasters, the Ice Breaker, and I’m happy to say that I was only counted as having uttered two ums during that speech. Given that I’m doing more webinars and training courses, I want to make sure that I can give as polished a presentation as possible to my audience. Why? Because if I expect people to sign up for my webinars and trainings, I want them to have confidence in their decision, and not sound like I’m stumbling for an answer to things that I should already know.

If you’re going to be doing public speaking – even if it’s over the internet, I’d highly recommend joining a local Toastmasters group. Check out http://www.toastmasters.org/ to find a local club. And if you’re in the Pittsburgh-North area, check out the Cranberry High Noon Club.

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