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Is Your Presentation Filled with Um's? A method to reduce filled pauses when speaking in front of a group

By Jessica Bacon
January 25, 2021
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It’s not always an easy feat to talk in front of a group of people – whether it’s 5 or 50 or a crowd of hundreds.  For some people, just the idea of speaking in front of a group is enough to provoke anxiety.  For others, that microphone or podium are as much a part of their professional routine as typing emails and taking a phone call.  

Regardless of how you feel about addressing a group, oral communication skills are often paramount to succeeding and moving forward in your career.  The U.S. Department of Labor showed that communication skills, including oral expression, are strongly correlated with wages (Burrus, Jackson, Xi, & Steinberg, 2013).  One survey of employers showed oral communication skills as one of the highest-ranked skills of importance for recent college graduates (Chronicle of Higher Education and Marketplace, 2013).  As with most things, practice improves performance, and public speaking is certainly one area worth improving upon.  

Even people who are comfortable at the podium are prone to throwing in the dreaded filled pauses.  Repeatedly filling pauses with unnecessary sounds and phrases, such as “um”, “uh”, or “like”.  Why do we do this when we are speaking? Speakers often emit these speech disfluencies as an announcement that there will be a delay in speaking.  The announcement could indicate that the speaker is searching for a word, deciding what to say next, or simply that they want to keep the attention of the audience (Clark and Fox Tree, 2002). 

Despite its purpose, it’s considered to be one of the most annoying habits in the vocal delivery.  We’ve all sat through that awkward presentation where the presenter repeated a rhetorical “make sense?” or “you know what I mean?” every 10 seconds.  Who among us did not want to shout, “Yes, it makes sense!!  Stop asking us!”.  It’s irksome and causes the speaker to be a less effective presenter.  Let’s stop doing this and learn to become more fluent speakers.  Here’s how. 

Awareness Training

Behavior analysts have examined a range of techniques to eliminate the filled pauses from participants’ speech.  Recent research has narrowed down the intervention steps to one component that has proven to be effective (Montes et al., 2019; Spieler & Miltenberger, 2017).   This component, called awareness training, is the process of identifying the filled pause responses and then becoming aware of when you are engaging in those behaviors and in which situations they typically occur. 

Step 1:  Identify the sound or phrase that you want to stop using.

The most important thing to do first is to identify which filled pause responses you want to reduce.  You probably already know what they are.  Do you say “um” at the end of every sentence?  Are you using “valley speak” – interjecting “likes” at the beginning of every point?  If you’re not sure, ask a friend, colleague, or classmate to pay attention to you when you speak in a group.  Ask them if they notice you using filled pauses.  Once you’ve clearly identified the filled pauses that you want to stop using, you need to know the frequency of their occurrence.

Step 2:  Determine how often filled pauses are occurring during your presentation.

The easiest way to do this is to video record a presentation that you deliver before an audience or group.  Review the video recording and count the number of filled pause responses that occur and notice the context in which they are most likely to occur.  Do they occur when you are wrapping up one topic and moving onto the next?  When you are asked a question?  Or while you are glancing at your notes?  Once you have an understanding of when they are occurring, as well as a total count, calculate the number of times per minute that a filled pause is used. 

Step 3:  Practice makes perfect.  Or, at least better. 

Now you know your current rate of um’s and ah’s.  Continue to practice identifying these speech disfluencies while speaking in front of a group.   After several live presentations, follow up by recording another speech and calculate your new rate per minute.  You may find that you have become a more fluent speaker.  

These three steps alone may be all that is needed to effectively reduce your use of filled pauses (Montes et al, 2019; Bell, 2011).  However, if you find that filled pauses are still a problem when you are speaking in front of a group, try replacing them with a more effective speaking behavior that will serve as a competing response.

Use a Silent Pause to Replace Filled Pauses

Although awareness training, alone, has proven to be a successful strategy in reducing a speaker’s use of filled pauses, it may be helpful to include one additional step in your intervention: inserting a silent pause during those situations when you are likely to use a filled pause. A silent pause is essential because speakers would not make sense if they continued with one long stream of words.  It can take the place of the filled pause and will likely help you to speak at a more natural pace. 

Additionally, silent pauses will allow your audience time to absorb and process what you are saying.  Many people feel anxious when they pause during their presentation, but experts agree that fluent presenters use silent pauses often in their speeches to emphasize points, engage their audience, and make space for audience participation (Bell, 2011; Henderson, 2007).  So, take a long inhale at the end of your point and/or during transitions in your presentation, resisting the urge to fill those silent gaps with sound.  

In conclusion, oral communication skills are important and those um, uh, or likes could be ruining your ability to speak effectively in front of a group.  To become a more competent speaker, follow the steps above to reduce sounds and phrases that have no meaning and detract from your presentation.  Also, keep in mind that silent pauses are the right kind of pause to use in your presentation.  When you feel the urge to end a sentence with “know what I mean?” or “like, does that make sense?”, take a slow deep breath and move on to the next point in your speech when you are ready.  

Resources:

Bell, R. L. (2011, October). Is your speech filled with um? 3 tips to eliminate filled pauses from your professional presentation. Supervision, 72(10), 10-13. 

Retrieved from. www.supervisionmagazine.com. 

Burrus, J., Jackson, T., Xi, N., & Steinberg, J. (2013). Identifying the most important 21st-century workforce competencies: An analysis of the Occupational Information Network (O*NET). Research Report. ETS RR-13-21. ETS Research Report Series. Retrieved from https://www.ets.org/Media/Research/ pdf/RR-13-21.pdf 

Chronicle of Higher Education and Marketplace (2013). What do employers really want from college grads? 

Retrieved from https://www.marketplace.org/2013/03/ 01/education/what-do-employers-really-want-college- grads 

Clark, H. H., & Fox Tree, J. E. (2002). Using uh and um in spontaneous speaking. Cognition, 84, 73–111. 

Henderson, J. (2007). There’s no such thing as public speaking: Making any presentation or speech as persuasive as a one-on-one conversation. New York, NY: Prentice Hall Press

Mancuso, C., & Miltenberger, R. (2016). Using habit reversal to decrease filled pauses and nervous habits in public speaking. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 49, 188–192.

Montes,C., Heinicke, M., and Geirerman, D. (2019). Awareness training reduces college students’ speech disfluencies in public speaking. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 52, 746-755. 

Spieler, C., & Miltenberger, R. (2017). Using awareness training to decrease nervous habits during public speaking. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 50, 38- 47. 

 

Keywords:  public speaking, presentation skills, filled pause

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