What happens when you stop saying um?
[Note: I drafted this post a few years ago and have only just realized I never published it. Though the articles linked here are older, the content is still completely relevant, so I'm published it here as a new musing.]
About once a month or so, I see a blog post title along the lines of "How to rid yourself of pesky ums". They often start with the assertion that when you say um, you destroy your credibility and make yourself out to look like an idiot. Then they go on to give advice that is often little more than "stop yourself from saying um." On occasion, some of these are hyperlinked giving them an air of greater legitimacy and authority, but I frequently find the links go to other articles that just say the same thing: "Stop saying um!"
However, one recent such post which I saw at LifeHacker and MakeUseOf (and other places) piqued my interest because they both referred to an infographic created by the London Speaker Bureau entitled, "11 Killer Tips to Stop Saying Um Forever". It's a beautifully organized and illustrated graphic (though the dimensions make it difficult for web display) and I encourage you to view it at one of the sites above. However, for the purpose of this post, I'll extract just the 11 tips below.
Tip #1: Know what you're going to say and organise it into chunks
Tip #2: Realise that nobody can tell if you're nervous
Tip #3: Don't put your hands in your pockets
Tip #4: Keep your sentences short. Pause between sentences
Tip #5: Make sure the content is engaging
Tip #6: Tell a story
Tip #7: Prepare. Prepare. Prepare
Tip #8: Avoid distraction
Tip #9: Understand why you say "um?"
Tip #10: Know your transitions
Tip #11: Listen to yourself
The graphic includes more detailed explanation on each tip plus some additional factoids and, usefully, a list of sources. I even found a couple of references I had not encountered, yet.
Many of the sites are distributing the infographic as if it explains how to stop yourself from saying um in all of your speech, even daily conversation. Make use of even asserts the following:
Regardless of what crutch word you use, there are ways to stop. You can stop relying on these words and speak more smoothly, whether you're doing public speaking, or just looking to sound more intelligent in your daily conversations, and the infographic below has the 11 tips that you need to know to make it happen!
While the infographic title does a bit of a disservice by being hyperbolic, a careful reading of the content makes it quite clear that this is talking about removing ums in formal public speaking. This was produced by the London Speaker Bureau, after all, which provides a service to introduce conference and event organizers to their slate of expert speakers (e.g., community and business leaders, inspirational speakers, and even academics). I've even communicated with the bureau by e-mail and they've confirmed that the infographic is intended to have this more limited scope. Thus, bloggers and others who present it otherwise are carelessly misrepresenting it and one may wonder whether they've actually read the infographic carefully or critically.
Now, that said, I do have several criticisms of the assumptions and assertions of the information in the infographic, which I'd like to outline here.
First, many of the tips seem like excellent tips for improving the quality of one's presentation delivery as a whole, but I'm unsure if they really are helpful toward reducing or removing ums from speech. Tips #5, #6, and #8, in particular, and to a lesser extent, #2, #3, #7, and #11 do not seem to have any causal relationship to inhibit the production of um in speech. Regarding Tip #3, there is some evidence that speakers tend not to gesture and use filled pauses simultaneously (Christenfeld et al 1991), but that doesn't imply a causal connection between the two wherein restricting yourself from gesturing by, say, putting your hands in your pockets makes you say um more often. It could simply be that, while they are related phenomena, they reflect somewhat different cognitive processes. As for Tip #11, I wonder if this could actually increase your use of um as you becomes more self-conscious of your own speech.
Second, I sense that Tips #1 and #4 may result in a possible decrease in ums by basically replacing filled pauses with silent pauses. However, some research (Christenfeld 1995) suggests that doing so results in speech that listeners judge as less relaxed (more anxious). This may be counterproductive and it actually even contradicts Tip #2.
Finally, I believe that many well-prepared and well-rehearsed speakers can likely remove most, if not all, of the ums from their oral presentations. However, in cases where the formal speech is followed by a Q&A session — which is impromptu and cannot be rehearsed—speakers have little choice but to fall back on their default hesitation styles. This could potentially result in a large discrepancy between the rehearsed speech and the unrehearsed Q&A. I suspect that this discrepancy would really damage one's credibility because it suggests that the presentation itself was not "authentic". I don't have any direct evidence for this right now, but anecdotally, this seems plausible given the criticism that usually befalls politicians and statesmen who give a fantastic speech (perhaps using a teleprompter) followed by a normally um-filled Q&A session. I think this is partly what Richard Dawkins was getting at with the question in the following tweet.
But can speech that is TOO clear, too articulate, fluent, de-ummed, shorn of "basicallys" & "you knows" sound intimidating? Arrogant? Smug?
In short, it's a bit like the law of unintended consequences: You don't know what consequences there will be when you try to force yourself to do something that doesn't come naturally. Yes, you may succeed in eliminating the proscribed behavior, but at what cost?