I recently attended a well-known public speaking organization, Toastmasters, to learn more about their structure and strategy in  developing speakers.   While I appreciated their focus on strong organization, the building of vocabulary and the pursuit of grammatical accuracy, I found the  practice of counting  “um’s” rather  counterproductive.

Here’s why:

Telling a speaker they have 7 um’s and 4 uh’s is like focusing on someone’s face and noticing freckles and blemishes without taking in the whole face and person.  If you are going to count “fillers,” then why not count the “you know’s” and “like’s” as well?   But more importantly, if you count hesitations, do you also count the number of times the speaker is fluent?   What is the proportion of hesitations to smooth speech?  Do the hesitations really stand out in a negative way, or are they noticed because the  focus is to listen for them?

Analyzing  empty vocalizations for a beginning speaker can exacerbate speech anxiety and even increase the number of hesitations going forward.  I’ve worked with many individuals with public speaking anxiety and for some, focusing on small imperfections can be traumatic and have a long-lasting negative impact.

Furthermore, all uh’s and er’s are not the sameWhere and when they occur is more critical than quantifying them and  better indicators of whether these hesitations actually impact listener attention or speaker credibility.

Also important is why these hesitations occur.  Some um’s may be indicative of vocabulary needs or word-finding difficulty, particularly if the speaker speaks English as a second language. Others may represent the speaker’s personality style or a neurophysiological difference, and some might occur unconsciously, from habit.

A professional speech coach employs strategies to strengthen and enhance fluency with an unwavering focus on building each individual’s presentation confidence.  Eliminating empty vocalizations is important  and necessary for media presentations and for professional speakers, but as a finishing touch.    If  hesitations are to be counted, I suggest doing so once a speaker has developed a certain level of public speaking comfort and confidence, not at the beginning of public speaking training.  And, if this habit is signaled as a weakness, be sure to give the speaker direction and support to change this behavior.

Thanks for listening,


 One of my business’s taglines is “the art and science” of presentation excellence.  Recently someone challenged the “science” aspect.  Thinking “performance”, “stage presence”, “microphones”, “PowerPoint”, they felt speaking was more the “art.”

But speaking is a complex neuromuscular activity (I learned that in Speech 101  many years ago) .  Our thoughts are transformed into energy that sets off a series of integrated systems involving the brain, lungs, larynx, tongue, lips, jaw, palate, etc.   We tend to take all of this for granted.

Why don’t presenters easily stand still, use natural gestures and speak fully? Because they are nervous.  And what is nervousness but an autonomic response to the unfamiliar resulting in palpitations, sweaty palms, dry mouth or shaking knees?

What about eye contact?   The average person has no training in using their eyes to communicate in large group settings.  Our eyes are “used” to working in one-to-one or small group situations.  Eye muscles can be trained to target individuals in a group context (science)  and then when paired with words, make a speaker more engaging and dynamic (art).   

And think about this:  if you hold your breath, you will be unable to speak more than a few constipated-sounding words.  Breathing is essential to speaking.  Inhalation and exhalation, (also known as inspiration and expiration), are a requirement for speech and voice.  We breathe, (inspire) before we speak and hopefully, “inspire” others with our words and wisdom.  Science leads; art follows – and we  need both to be effective public speakers.                                                                                                                                      

Thanks for listening,

Eileen  www.speakingthatconnects.com