Workshop Wednesday – are ‘filler words’ the kiss of death in presentations?

I was at a Toastmasters meeting this morning and I was allocated a role that I don’t like very much – the “Um-Ah Counter.”

The idea was for me to count the ums, ahs, clutch words and repetitions that speakers are supposed to avoid – because they are considered distracting to the audience.

I was consciously counting (and noting down) the transgressions and so I noticed them all.

But if I was just listening as a general audience member, would I have heard them? I don’t know, to be honest.

I’ve pointed out before that some of the most effective communicators don’t get hung up on ‘filler’ words – and it seems there is research to suggest that such interruptions make communication easier to achieve.

‘The Umm Report’ was a UK-wide study by Mortar Research – and it found that having a few ‘filler words’ let the audience know that you were still engaged – and that you had more information to impart.

But there is a fine line between acceptable and excruciating where ‘ums and ahs’ are concerned. That line appears to be 1.28 filler words per 100.

More than that and you sound less educated, less convincing, and less trustworthy.

Who knew that research into ums and ahs could be so … fine grained?

Well, James Bryce, inventor of the ‘Speech Intelligence Analytics’ software, apparently 🙂

He told The Independent newspaper that a degree of filler words is acceptable, as they help with ‘verbal planning.’

But if there are too many, listeners start to disengage.

Even worse, they start to actively downgrade what you are saying.

As part of the same study, people were asked to comment on one of two speeches.

One group watched a speech which was factually correct but filled with fillers and hesitations.

A second group watched a speech that was wrong – but was delivered with confidence and no interruptions. 

Far more people thought the speaker delivering the smooth lies was intelligent, attractive and had good people skills.

Even though the information they delivered was wrong.

And even though the two speeches were given by the same person!

So – it is worth making an effort to reduce filler words and verbal tics. How?

Well, I hate to say it – but maybe the “Um – Ah counter” has a role in providing rapid feedback.

Even more disturbing to me is the research which suggests that INSTANT feedback (via an audible interruption like a bell or buzzer) leads to a 60% reduction in the use of such verbal tics.

Ugh. Maybe. But I still don’t like it.

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