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Essential Speaking Skills
All about the art of public speaking.

Urm… uh…you know…hmm…oh yeah…pause (uh) fillers…

Have you ever counted the number of “uh”, “urm”, “you know”, “hmm” or “now” littered in your speech? I did. Not pretty. I still remember the first time when someone counted for me. It was so bad that he stopped counting at 60. I wasn’t alone of course. In fact, it got to a point where the President of my former Toastmasters Club contemplated fining 10 cents for every “urm” and “uh” in our speeches; in order to get the club out of the red! (Shan’t name the club for “face” sake)

Come to think of it… he should have. Imagine the amount of money our club could have profited. We had 25 members at that time, with an average count of 20 “urms” and “uhs”, which equated to 500. In one session, we could have easily made $50! What a deal!!!

In Toastmasters, we have a term for these nasty word pests. They are called pause fillers. Quite obvious isn’t it. They fill up the pauses in our speech, usually sub-consciously. Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on how you look at it), this habit is practiced by all of us in our oratory evolution. When we forget a word or a point in our speech, we inadvertently let out these strange sounds as we try to remember what to say next. At times, they also “help” to fill the sudden silence that occurs in the middle of our speeches. I even notice speakers using pause fillers as crutches when they get all nervous and scared.

So are pause fillers necessary? My answer is a firm no unless you want to protray to the audience your lack of confidence and preparation. Pause fillers also reduce the impact of your speech significantly.

But here’s the problem. Very often, these pause fillers manifest themselves without warning. How then can we eliminate them if we do not know when they will pop up?

Firstly, be conscious of your speaking! That was the first advice I got from a well respected speaker after my appalling rendition of pause fillers in my maiden speech. He told me to listen to myself as I deliver my speech. And each time I am about to spew out a pause filler, catch it (figuratively of course). Something like this:

“As you can see, energy is…(potential ‘urm’ unleashing - stop it and then proceed)…everywhere. In fact you are soaking in it. (potential ‘urm’ unleashing - stop it and then proceed) You can even feel it…”

During the start, this may sound a bit awkard. It feels like your engine just died on you. However after a while, the recovery time will get faster and faster. After a while you will notice that you don’t even have the urge to fill your pause with “urms” and “uhs” anymore.

Secondly, get someone in the audience to count your pause fillers. It is impossible to notice all your pause fillers and with a third party, he or she would be able to objectively identify them. In every Toastmasters meeting, we have this kind person to help us do that. He or she is often call the “uh-counter”. In my case, not only did I learnt that I consistently polluted my speeches with “uh”, “urm”, “you know”, “hmm”, “now” (the list goes on)… I also made other funny noises and gestures. I have this habit of clapping my hand every time I make a point. I will also clear my throat at odd periods of my speech.

“Ok, NOW (clap) I will move on to my next point. (clears throat) NEXT (clap) I will (urm) share with you about more (clears throat) my (urm) experience…

Yes, it is that bad.

Thirdly, get used to the silence in your speeches! In oratorical speeches, silence sometimes speak louder than words! Not only does it create suspense, it also allow your audience to digest and process your message. In fact, pauses are also the fundamental mechanics of humor. Notice how the comedian will always pause before he unleashes his or her punch line. It is the same in your speech.

In your next speech, pause after every major point you made. It doesn’t have to be too long. Two seconds should suffice. You can even insert the pauses in your written speech. This will remind me to pause each time you reach a certain point in your speech. As you experiment your pauses, you will gradually grow comfortable with the silence. You will also notice that the urge to fill the silence with pause fillers is no longer there!

In one of a speech contest, the finalist came up on stage, walked to the center and kept quiet. He looked at the audience intently but did not breathe a word. After a really uncomfortable pause of about 30 seconds, he spoke: “I can’t do it…” and walked off. The emcee came back up on stage, apparently shocked. But before he could say a word, the speaker suddenly turned to face the audience and spoke again. “That’s life my friends. In time of need, in your dire moment when you feel like giving up, is there someone out there who stop you and nudge you to stay strong?”

The power of pause my friends!

Let’s play a game. The next time you give a speech, no matter how long or short, get your friend to count your pause fillers. Let me know if you broke my record! (Grins)

“Urm… uh…you know…hmm…oh yeah…pause (uh) fillers…”