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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Public speaking comes up frequently in our personal and professional lives, from giving a toast at a wedding, to giving a presentation to co-workers or classmates. This task also comes with numerous benefits, such as influencing people, confidence when speaking out or asking questions, as well as getting ahead at work. Despite the possible advances this skill may bring, nearly 25% of Americans are afraid of public speaking, making this one of the most common fears (Ingraham, 2014).
One might think that to master the skill of public speaking, we should eliminate the fear, but according to Friman (2014), one should instead learn to speak well in front of the room despite the fear. How could we possibly speak publicly if we’re afraid? The author gives us 15-steps to follow on how to master public speaking even if we’re scared.
Preparation is essential to give a good presentation, and practicing is at its core because it results in fluency. Specifically, practicing the first 5 minutes of a presentation because this is where the speaker is very nervous, and the last 5 minutes since this is when the presentation has the most important points.
Pick a presenter you enjoy and watch their presentation, taking notes on how they present their material, then try to replicate it.
Before your presentation, go to the room where it will take place, and rearrange the furniture how you like it. While there, make your way to the front of the room, and as you visualize the audience give the room the first 5 minutes of your presentation. If you plan on using any technology (microphone, projector, video) during your presentation, this is a good time to test it.
In today’s fast-paced society, people’s attention should not be taken for granted, therefore get their attention early as this can set the tone for your talk.
As you make your way to the front of the room to start your presentation, do so with intent, grabbing people’s attention as you do. Bring this attention with you to the front of the room and use a strategy to get everyone’s eyes to you before starting. You can find your own approach or state something like “can I please have your attention”.
It is customary to have someone introduce the speaker, but this can sometimes put them in an uncomfortable position. Long introductions may also take up some of your valuable time, so if possible, ask to do your own introduction or if that is not an option, ask that the introduction be short.
This will aid the audience in viewing the speaker with a superior role during the presentation. Ideally, the speaker should be dressed somewhat more than the typical audience member. On the other hand, don’t dress up too much that the audience is focused on your clothes rather than the presentation.
Good posture goes a long way and communicates confidence as well as respect. Smiling will also help your presentation, as it can reduce your anxiety about being in front of the room, and makes the speaker seem more approachable.
Think of tempo, volume, and tone as opportunities to emphasize important points and gain the audiences’ attention. We have all attended a talk where the presenter did not have variations in tone, volume, and/or tempo, and in doing so, lost some of the member’s attention.
This is your presentation so be fully in the moment, available, and prepared for the talk. Sometimes speakers tend to become self-conscious about their presentation, rather, consciousness should be focused on the material which is being presented.
If you plan on using technology for your presentation, such as audio, video, PowerPoint, then it’s important to have a Plan-B in case those do not function properly. If you’re using audio, have a script for what you’ll say in it’s place, if you’re using slides, print them out so that you’ll have a copy in case the projector doesn’t work. Assume that whatever can go wrong will and develop backups for any technologies you plan to use.
Use slides to your advantage, but don’t read off of them; the audience has the ability to read, and they are here for your presentation, not just a PowerPoint. In addition, if your slides are well created there should not be enough information on them for you to read. The author recommends having more pictures than words on slides.
The audience’s attention will naturally drift, and it’s the speaker’s role to get it back. There are numerous ways to accomplish this, for instance, you can tell a personal story, allow for a brief silence, change the topic, give a relevant example, or ask if there are questions.
While preparing for your presentation, be clear on what your fundamental point is, or what you want the audience to leave with. When you get their attention, refer to your fundamental message, which is the most important point you can make. Awareness of your fundamental message will also help if you draw a blank during your presentation; focusing on it can get you back on track.
Be prepared enough so that you do not go over your allotted time, and always time yourself when practicing your presentation. Be respectful of the next speaker by not running into their time or making your audience late to their next meeting.
The last suggestion Friman gives us is to get your feet wet, begin practicing right away and present whenever you can. There will be plenty of opportunities as there is a constant need for public speakers. Whatever it is that you want to accomplish, personal or professional, mastering the front of the room will only benefit your future endeavors. Remember that the key is to learn to talk in front of a group of people while nervous, not to eliminate the nervousness.
Friman, P. C. (2014). Behavior Analyst to the front! A 15-step tutorial on public speaking. Behavior Analyst, 37, 109-118.
Ingraham, C. (2014). America’s top fears: Public speaking, heights and bugs. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/10/30.