It was the night before TEDx Perth 2013. Speakers I had coached were at UWA’s Octagon Theatre for dress rehearsal.
You probably know that TEDx speakers put in incredible effort to develop these talks. The audience thinks they are hearing someone speak eloquently off the cuff, but that’s thanks to weeks of careful preparation and rehearsal.
A sports psychologist I worked with that year was one of these speakers. He had worked very hard and produced incredible content about the mind of professional athletes. But he said ‘um’ every 10 seconds.
This was the night before kick-off.
Overnight, Martin Hagger coached himself out of Um. His talk has been viewed over one million times.
We say um to fill what we think is uncomfortable silence.
I see speakers say “um” after a joke, something controversial or very personal. It happens in formal settings and everyday conversation. “Um” is an attempt to avoid silence. If a joke lands poorly and we keep talking, perhaps the audience won’t be able to tell that no one laughed. (Now that I’ve pointed it out you will start to see it everywhere too!)
As the speaker, a pause feels unfathomably long.
For the audience it’s breathing space.
When you say something profound, the nano-second afterwards can feel like a chasm. You’ve just given away something deeply personal: what if they don’t respond? Almost every speaker I work with is scared they will forget their words and they will be shamed. So, at the slightest hint of pause, they keep talking. But actually, the quarter second you are silent, is barely enough for your audience to take in what you are saying.
By saying um we take away the audience’s opportunity to digest our words.
Ironically, when you say “Um” and keep talking, you make it really hard for the audience to respond, with laughter or even just an internal “Aha” moment. Did you know that getting a laugh is often less about what you say, and more about timing?
Cue your audience to your respond
Think about a circus show where the performer makes a flourish, or holds a pose. You know it’s time to applaud. When you’ve been holding your breath throughout a moment of suspense and the performer finally releases the tension – you can’t help but belly laugh with the breath out.
Um is never just about Um
Training yourself out of um is more than just not saying it. It’s coming to terms with the awkwardness of silence, and the fear you won’t be taken seriously The good thing is, you can work through it and train yourself out of um overnight. Good luck!
Rachael West is a strategic speaker coach, facilitator and social entrepreneur. She loves helping engineers, scientists and people with something important to tell the world, craft a meaningful, engaging presentation they can use again and again to help their field shine. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.