What not to say: Um

For a long time my job has reqiured a great deal of spokesmanship in various forms.  To illustrate my point, do a Google search on the phrase tim callan, and you’ll see I’m six of the top ten entries.  Change the phrase to a subject I’m actually speaking about, e.g. tim callan ssl, and I’m all ten.

Contemporary spokesmanship involves the extensive use of online “Web 2.0″ media like blogging and Twitter, and more on that later I’m sure, but it still involves good, old fashioned, vocal communication.  I talk to jounalists or analysts or other outside opinion makers on a weekly basis, so it’s important to do a good job of coming across.  More on that too, I’m sure, but today I want to make a straightforward point about the word um.  When I write um in this post, I’m also referring to uh and well and like and and um and the thing is any other vocal tic that one uses as a pure, content free filler while speaking.  Most of us have them, and most of the time they’re things we say when we’re thinking of the next word or point we need to make.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with pausing to think, but the use of these words makes a speaker look indecisive and inarticulate and, frankly, not really on the ball.  If you watch almost any newsbyte from the current President of the United States, you’ll notice that he says uh all over the place.  I put it to you, however, that President Obama made it to his very high level of accomplishment in spite of that vocal tic, not because of it.

Instead the best practice, in my opinion, is silence.  Go ahead and stop.  Think.  Pause as often as you need to.  In fact, a well timed pause, if you don’t use it too often, can be a powerful way to draw your audience in.  You build some tension for what’s going to happen next.  A great example comes from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.  The film features a flashback in which Captain Koons delivers a gold watch to a young Butch Coolidge.  He tells a long story about the journey of the gold watch from Butch’s great grandfather to his grandfather to Butch’s father and finally to Butch himself.  At one point during the soliloquy Captain Koons says,

Three days later, your grandfather was dead.  But Winocki kept his word.  After the war was over, he paid a visit to your grandmother, delivering to your infant father his Dad’s gold watch.  [seven seconds of silence]  This watch.

Those seven seconds of silence are incredibly powerful.  We’re sitting and staring at a close up on this watch and thinking about everything we’ve been told and what remains to learn.  Now try to imagine the same scene if Christopher Walken had given the line as, “…delivering to your infant father is Dad’s gold watch.  And well, um, you see it was this watch.”

Which is better?

So what do you do about a vocal tic if you have one?  I have found that I can more or less train them out of my vocabulary.  The first step is to be aware.  Pay attention to your own speech with a particular ear to words, sounds, or phrases that you use repeatedly and that play a pure filler role.  Note what they are.  Write them down.  Then set yourself the challenge to stop using them when you speak to people.  To make it easier for myself, I attached a note to the bottom of my monitor at work which read, “Don’t say um.”  That way it sat and stared at me, and I had a very immediate reminder when I was on the phone with people in a work context, which for me was the most important context in which to improve this habit.

At first I realized that I said this U word a lot, but as time went on, I found I was saying it less and less.  Every time I would say it, I’d have this brief thought that went, “Oh, you dummy, you said it,” and that served as a conditioning mechanism to train it out of my speech.  I’m not purely umless, but if I’m on the clock as an official spokesperson, today I’m pretty darn close.

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