Dealing with disfluency in a Media Interview
July 29, 2022

At the start of our Media Training courses, when we ask participants for their objectives so that we can ensure that the course meets their individual needs, we almost always find that at least one person will mention one particular concern. “I’m conscious of ‘erming’ and ‘ahring’ too much,” they’ll say, but disfluency is more common than people might think.

Why are people so bothered about these verbal tics? When we ask about this issue in more detail, people will usually say that they feel it makes them appear lacking in confidence or unsure about what they want to say. As one participant told us recently, “I think it makes me sound unprofessional.” We provide media training for lawyers, and this person was a partner at a magic circle law firm, so the concern is perhaps understandable in this case. But should this lawyer – or any other media training workshop participant be so focussed on this issue?

Disfluency in the media

We can understand why there might be anxieties associated with these little words, and we can provide advice on how to avoid sprinkling your answers with them. However, it’s interesting to explore why these particular types of “disfluency,” as they’re known, crop up in media interviews and presentations and look at what effect they have on the listener. Disfluency refers to anything that slows or interrupts speech. Other examples include stuttering or unnecessarily prolonging a particular section of a word or phrase.

The truth is that everybody uses “ums” and “ers”. They’re common when people are trying to think about what they want to say and which words they want to use to express these thoughts. So, is that a bad thing? We argue that it isn’t. These little disfluencies can make people sound more authentic and thoughtful. A speaker who will occasionally pause and “er” and “erm” can sound as if they’re thinking carefully about their answer rather than just trotting out a pat phrase or reaching for a cliché.

Take your time!

We provide media training for MPs and councillors, and people working in politics. Some of the worst criticism levelled at them is about “machine politicians” who spout clichés and platitudes. Elected officials would often sound better, we believe, if they took some time to answer a question and relax about the occasional disfluency; they would appear to be genuinely reflecting and taking time to think about the issue rather than just repeating the line that their spin doctor has given them.

Disfluencies also allow the audience to take on board what the speaker is saying. If you talk too quickly without pauses or breaks, it’s difficult for many listeners to follow you, especially if your words are complex or technical. In this case, disfluencies can be your friend if I, as an audience member, am trying to take onboard and consider what you’re telling me entirely.

Industry examples

We once provided media interview coaching for a senior banker whose answers were so fluent and slick that we had to suggest that he introduce some disfluencies so that he sounded less than perfectly articulate and didn’t appear as if he was reading his answers. This was particularly noticeable in his radio performance.

Disfluencies can be distracting and annoying, and they can work to the speaker’s detriment if there are too many of them. It’s the same with filler words and phrases such as “I mean” and “you know”. One way to avoid excessive use of these interruptions is simply to slow down. We advise people in our Media Training courses to speak slowly, especially when delivering key points such as an important statistic, a buzzword or a soundbite. Substitute “I mean” or “you know” for silence, and you’ll add gravitas. You’ll also sound more persuasive, articulate and authoritative.

Media Training UK

So, if you “erm” and ah”, that’s fine. But, like so many things in life – it’s better used in used moderation.

Find out how else Communicate Media can support you in preparation for your Media interview today.

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