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Th-th-th-th-th-that’s All, Folks! Speech Quirks That Work?

May 17, 2012, 2:00 pm

Is perfect public speaking really best?

I have received a lot of thoughtful reactions to the TEDx talk posted below, not only in the comments section, but in private communications as well.  Responding to one new colleague who wrote me a gracious note, I admitted that I was a little self-conscious about the “ums” and “ahs” that punctuate my performance.

The more I have participated in visual and aural media as a scholar, the harder I have worked to eliminate speech quirks that I find distracting and amateurish.  Everything is now memorialized on line, and anything not said well on the first take is recorded forever.  Some of my performances sound embarrassingly unpolished to my own ear, and are discouragingly unlike the confident, fluent PBS Newshour talking head that I long to be.  As I listen to myself, too often these non-verbal punctuations begin to sound like a drumbeat, causing me to lose track of anything intelligent I had to say while I wait for the next embarrassing “um”: “Um (blah, blah, blah); um (blah, blah, blah); um….”

In response to this revealing moment of self-criticism, my colleague kindly sent me a link to this post from the research news site Futurity.  Written by University of Illinois communications dude Steve McGaughey“Don’t Ditch the ‘Ums’. Listeners Need Them” (January 24 2012) argues that “Speakers should think twice before eliminating the ‘ums,’ ‘uhs,’ and other speech fillers from their message if they want listeners to recall what was said.”  According to researchers Scott H. Fraundorf and Duane G. Watson at UI’s Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, listeners had better recall of stories delivered by speakers who ummed, ahhed and coughed (verbal punctuation known in the trade as “disfluencies”) than those by speakers who delivered the same story in perfectly polished form.  While the findings are still speculative, Fraundorf and Watson hypothesize that disfluencies cause listeners to pay closer attention to unfamiliar material: hence, audiences recalled and understood what I have just characterized as more flawed performances better.

This makes me feel better, but still dissatisfied, perhaps because of an ingrained class bias that causes me to view those “ums” as uneducated, a sign of confusion or a search for the right word (which frankly, sometimes they are.) Would something else work better?  A brief pause — in other words, a silence not filled by a non-verbal utterance — might be effective at least part of the time, as would a facial expression or hand gesture.  And yet, ought the “ums” and “ahs” to be eliminated entirely?  Does anyone notice them but me?

Readers — what do you hear when you listen to yourself?

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