Why you shouldn’t stop saying ‘um,’ ‘erm,’ and ‘ah’ while public speaking.
October 29, 2020

When we start our media training courses by asking our participants what they want to learn, one of the most common requests we hear concerns disfluencies.  “I want to stop ‘erming’ and ‘ahing’,” participants frequently tell us. Similarly, when we listen back to a role play TV or radio interview and ask the participant how they thought they did, they’ll frequently say that there were too many “erms” and “uhs”.

“Not a problem,” is almost always our response.  Of course, there are cases where these disfluencies are too frequent, and they become distracting.  As we explain, this is because the interviewee is talking too fast (a very common problem) and their brain simply can’t keep up with their mouth and so they have to introduce these fillers.  “You know,” and “sort of,” are other examples.

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau was criticised for using too many “erms” in a statement some years ago.  If you have a look, you’ll see that he does rather overdo it.  However, in most cases, a sprinkling of disfluencies can be quite a good thing during a media interview or presentation.  They slow the pace and make the speaker sound natural and human.

Psychologists have been looking into the issue.  Jean Fox Tree, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz and her team analysed millions of words and came to the conclusion that these sounds are a metalanguage.  That means that they manage expectations of what will come next, whether that means the listener should wait for more information or diving with a question or comment.

Research by the University of Calgary suggests that the sounds prepare us to be surprised by something new or unfamiliar. We talk in our media coaching sessions about signposting and signaling before introducing key messages and making important points.

Pauses and erms and ahs are a good way of doing this. The Calgary research also suggests that listeners can take in new information more effectively with the use of disfluencies. Working with Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign discovered that if readers inserted a small “erm” or “ah” before an important plot point, listeners were more likely to recall this fact.

Interestingly, if researchers substituted another interruption such as a cough participants’ recollection of these plot points was reduced by more than a third.

This fits with research from the University of Edinburgh and Stirling.  According to psychologists at these universities, “disfluencies” force the brain to focus on speech and help the listener to remember more of what is being said.  In the study, volunteers listened to a series of sentences.  A number of them contained “ers” and “ahs”.

The researchers then carried out a series of tests to measure how much the volunteers could remember. The results showed that inserting the “ers” had a significant effect on how well the subjects remembered what they had heard.

Up to an hour after hearing typical sentences, the volunteers identified 62 percent of words correct where there had been an “er” in the sentence.  On the other hand, they only remembered 55 percent for similar sentences that didn’t contain any verbal interruptions. The tests and results have since been replicated twice.

Dr Martin Corley, of Edinburgh University’s School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences, told Scotland on Sunday: “The difference is statistically significant.  We have established that the effect lasts for up to an hour, which in this field of study is regarded as long-term.  A disfluency is an interruption to the predicted ritual of things. “It’s like we are saying to ourselves ‘I’d better pay attention now because what I thought was going to happen isn’t going to happen’.”

Professor Fox Tree of the University of California points out that spontaneous speech would be incredibly difficult without these little interruptions and corrections. As we say in our media training workshops you need to sound as spontaneous and natural as possible – while ensuring that everything you’re saying has been agreed upon with your comms team or PR consultancy beforehand as it should be. Again, this is another reason why disfluencies can help people to sound more compelling and interesting.

The message is simple – don’t worry about those “ers” and “ahs.”  Slow your pace, focus on your messages, and do a rehearsal with your PR team beforehand to make sure that you’re comfortable with the words and phrases that you’re going to use.  As we tell participants in our media training courses, if disfluencies occur, don’t worry.  You’ll actually just sound more natural and your audience will be more likely to take on board what you’re saying.

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