Why you say ummmm when you speak

by Scott | 5/19/2009 | 18 Comments »

One of the most annoying and bad habits of public speakers is the constant use of “ummmm” to fill the space between words. Why do we do this?

There are four reasons:

  • It’s a habit in normal speech.  People don’t just do it on stage, they do it in real conversations all the time. We just don’t notice it as much.  In one study 40% of all verbal mistakes are umms of some kind (From Erard’s book, below).
  • It’s a way to hold the floor.  By making noise you indicate you’re not done and prevent other people from interrupting you. This is not necessary of course when on stage, unless it’s a really tough crowd.
  • It’s a nervous habit. Some do it more when they are nervous. Generally the worst way to express nerves is through your mouth if you’re giving a presentation.
  • We are afraid of silence. There is the feeling among many people when they speak that if they are silent people will boo them off the stage. So they feel obligated never to stop, and never to stop making some kind of noise.

In Michael Errard’s excellent book Um: verbal blunders and what they mean, he explains that we make many verbal blunders all day every day, on the order of one every 10 or 15 words. We just overlook them. We stop, restart, change words, clip words, repeat phrases, all the time. He calls these slips disfluencies.  Read a transcript of any conversation, even on TV talk shows, and you’ll see what a mess language is if you pay close attention.

However any repeated filler noise like “ummm” becomes distracting if you are the primary speaker. Other fillers include “So”, “Like”, and “Know what I mean”. Anything repeated unnecessarily can become an annoyance.

As annoying as this habit can be it’s an easy habit to fix.

How to break the habit:

  • Admit you have a problem. This is always the first step and it’s the hard one. You may do it an not know. Record the next talk you give and listen. If you umm more than once every 10 minutes, you may have a problem.
  • Practice. Most people can learn their way out of the habit if they practice talking and catch themselves every time they um.
  • Enjoy the Silence. Depeche Mode had it right. Pick your favorite speaker and pay attention to their pauses. Good speakers enjoy their silence. They take patience between points to let them sit. And when lost allow themselves a few moments of silence to sort things out in their own mind. If you notice when a speaker is silent they draw in more power from the room, like a wave going out before it comes back in.
  • Feel the pain! Some toastmasters groups go so far as to have an “ummmgong”, someone who rings a little bell every time someone says “ummmm” in a practice presentation.  It’s a bit militant but it probably works.

Have a story about presentation death from ummms? or know now a trick for getting rid of them? Leave a comment.

Speaking linkfest

by Scott | 5/14/2009 | No Comments »

Here is this week’s roundup of good links on public speaking:

Interview w/Ian Tyson: comedian & motivational speaker

by Scott | 5/13/2009 | 2 Comments »

Ian is a long time public speaker who speaks frequently to very tough crowds:  high school students. His talks are roughly described as motivational speaking, but if you didn’t know, you’d think it was solid stand up comedy than happens to have positive messages (without being cheezy). You can check a really funny bit of him making fun of superheroes here.

SB: Why do you think most people have fears about public speaking? Did you have them before you started? If so, how did you overcome? And if you still have those fears, how do you manage them?

People are afraid of failure. That fear holds so many people back on so many things in life, and public speaking is only one of them. Nobody wants to look “stupid”, “foolish”, “unprepared”, or any other (insert negative adjective here) thing that may be socially harmful in anyway. I think a lot of us worry about how we look or are perceived so much that it restricts our ability to enjoy an experience like speaking in front of a crowd.

Do I get nervous? Absolutely, I’ll be more scared the day I DON’T get the little butterflies in the stomach as I wait backstage. But as I have told many people in public speaking workshops I have facilitated, it is all about reading and redefining your body’s reaction. The body’s reaction to fear and excitement is the same; sweaty palms, “the stomach”, you name it. So if the reactions are the same it becomes a mental decision; “Am I afraid?” or “Am I Excited?” – there is a big difference. You are excited to see a movie you have waited for a long time, you are afraid walking through an empty parking garage at night.

Read the rest of this entry »

The paradoxes of lectures

by Scott | 5/13/2009 | 9 Comments »

One of the themes I’ve been exploring for the book are the paradoxes around lectures. Here’s my list of strange observations:

  • Many people hate lectures but attend anyway.  The word ‘lecture’ is often used as a criticism, as in ‘don’t lecture me’.  One way communication has never been much fun, and it’s the hardest kind of communication to learn from, but people attend lectures and conferences in droves anyway. Perhaps it’s the only way they feel they have to get the information they want.
  • Lectures are popular but most speakers aren’t very good.  Despite the pervasiveness of lectures in universities and at professional conferences, most speakers are not very good. Somehow despite the universal nature of lectures, and the key role they play in some professions (teachers / professors) good speakers are still rare. How can something be so old, and so important, but generally done so badly? (See do we suck at the basics?).
  • Attention spans are shorter than ever, but lectures on average are as long as ever.  Everything has gotten shorter (except perhaps for feature films and TV shows), but most lectures are an hour or longer and most college professors have 60 to 90 minute lecture sessions. There are now popular short forms like lightening talks, pecha-kucha, and ignite, but they are far from mainstream.

Any theories on why these paradoxes occur? Or have you observed other contradictions worth exploring? Let me know.

Should speakers ban twitter at their talks?

by Scott | 4/29/2009 | 8 Comments »

It’s kind of silly question as I’m not sure a speaker can effectively ban anything in their audience, but someone asked me this the other day. It’s an interesting question if you pile all the technology of laptops, mobile devices and phones, and how that helps or hurts the ability for a speaker to keep people’s attention.

A better question is:  what is the best way for everyone to get as much value from the speaker as possible?

Specific to twitter, at least there is some data on the question. Over at Consumer Centric they’ve posted an analysis of live tweeting of a session. Here’s the summary (based on 686 tweets):

75% of all tweets quote the speaker
13.6% were alerting others where they were
6% arranged for meeting up to discuss something
5% praised the speaker
4.4% were random or off-topic

First off, it’s important to note this breakdown will change wildly depending on:

  • How good the speaker is in keeping people’s positive attention
  • The makeup of the audience and their interest in good will

As a speaker, the above seems like good numbers. Some of those tweets repeating what was said will hit people who aren’t in the room, effectively making the audience larger. Assuming they quote the speaker accurately, this makes the effective audience bigger.

But anyone who is staring into a laptop is not making eye contact with the speaker – they are taking a little bit of energy out of the room in order to give it to people who also have their eyes on laptops, either in the room or elsewhere. I’d rather have most people fully engaged on what I’m saying, and a few dedicated people live tweeting, then never being sure if people’s noses in laptops is a good sign or bad.

Read the rest of their post for a summary of kinds of tweets they found – if ever you choose to livetweet a session, there’s good advice here.

Learning from Make TV’s William Gurstelle

by Scott | 4/28/2009 | 1 Comment »

I met William Gurstelle, author of Backyard Ballistics, at FOO Camp, an event run by O’Reilly Media. It was a big thrill since I’d gotten much pleasure from the  fun, love of learning, attitude that comes through in his books, his lectures, and now his TV Show Make: Television, based on the popular DIY magazine Make, where he is also a contributing editor.

SB. In 2009 we have more ways to consume information than ever, including videos of people presenting. Why then do people pay lots of money and travel from far away to sit in a room just to watch someone speak? Any theories?

WG: The personal and more intimate nature of a lecture distinguishes it from other forms of public entertainment, such as a play or a concert. As much as we would like to ask the orchestra conductor or theater director why they interpreted Beethoven or Tennessee Williams in a particular way, the opportunity to query them personally doesn’t often happen except in a lecture. Thanks to the virtually mandatory Q&A session afterward, audience members have a rare chance to connect directly with those people at the center of attention. Beyond that, it’s that personal connection between speaker and listener that can make a lecture a profound experience, one with immediate impact. Using their own words directly and passionately, speakers can transform an audience: The audience may become more informed, more enthusiastic, or more partisan. The fact is, they go away different from when they arrived.

What’s the best experience you’ve had as a presenter?

When inspiration, information, and persuasion are expertly combined in one neat package, as happened with these speakers, a lecture can be as amazing for the audience as any other, perhaps more artistically oriented, cultural experience. Dan Pink, a journalist and Washington insider of some repute, and the Guthrie Theater’s Artistic Director Joe Dowling are stellar, mixing all three modalities seamlessly and effectively.

How do you separate style from substance – can someone be a good speaker or TV show host without being funny or particularly eloquent?

Eloquence is mandatory, humor is optional. But content is king.  Good speakers must have an important message and must be able to convince their listeners of the importance of the information they convey. I think that’s why “celebrity” speakers sometimes fall flat — their message is weak because the focus is mostly on their celebrity.

How do you prepare to give a talk? Describe your process in terms of the steps you take?

Audiences differ, so it’s important to tailor the talk to the particular group of listeners. I typically start from a relatively generic framework that I’ve used before and customize it to fit the needs of a particular audience. Once it’s written, I run through it out loud which helps me understand what sounds good to the ear and what might need to be changed.

What are the common mistakes you’ve seen presenters make? And are their things can recommend to help them avoid them?

I’ve seen plenty of bad speakers who are up there fulfilling their own needs instead of the needs of the people they are presenting to. Presenters need to stay focused on the audience.
The material must be relevant to the listeners. It’s surprising how often people present material that’s not well matched to the people present.

How is presenting on TV different than speaking to a live audience?

It’s much different. Without a live audience, there’s less feedback. Also, there is much less time to explore a particular point, so the expectations and “formality” of the situation are peculiar to television.

Here’s Bill in action, talking about his homemade Trebuchet:

The myth of the tough crowd?

by Scott | 4/28/2009 | 6 Comments »

Everyone talks about how this room or that room was “a tough room” or a “tough crowd”. What makes one crowd tough and another one easy? Sometimes I think it’s mostly the speaker trying to explain why they didn’t do as well as they’d have liked, and the toughness of the crowd is an easy target.

I’d argue you can’t know how tough a crowd is or not unless you get there early enough to see another speaker present – only then can you calibrate how good they were, with how quiet or hostile the crowd was in response. With a sample size of 1 – you and your talk – you don’t have enough data to say anything about the crowd’s toughness.

I think often the tough crowd is created by the speaker not being informed enough about what’s going on in the room. What are they mad about? Why are they so quiet?

Here’s some advice on tough crowds:

  • An audience has a culture – know what it is.  Some professions, countries, and groups are quieter or more reserved than another.  Ask other people who have spoken at the group, or ask the host. It might seem tough to you, but entirely normal to them. Calibrate your expectations.
  • Know the things that make them mad, and avoid. Every company or industry has words they hate or facts they don’t want to hear. For example, mentioning Google at Microsoft, or Microsoft at Google, is sure to provoke a response. Choose stories and examples carefully.
  • Nothing makes an audience happier than talking about what they came to hear.  Perhaps they’re upset because of recent news, layoffs or a product failing in the marketplace. If there’s some constructive way you can work their true issues into your session, you can relieve the pressure they’re feeling.
  • There is always someone in the crowd who hates you the least.  Find the people who seem most positive or active and give them as much of your attention and eye contact.  Rewarding their positive responses will encourage them to keep doing it, and possibly help others in the audience follow along.

What are other factors that make crowds tough? And what are counter moves speakers should know? I’d love to hear your stories on tough crowds you’ve faced and what you learned (or didn’t :)

Speaking linkfest

by Scott | 4/22/2009 | 2 Comments »

I read tons and tons of public speaking this and that, and I’ll give you the best stuff I find each week:

Brain rules for public speaking

by Scott | 4/21/2009 | 2 Comments »

Two weeks ago I spoke at the same event as John Medina, author of Brain rules, where his post lecture book signing line was at least ten times longer than mine. It felt like having my garage band give a concert next door to U2. However, he did agree to answer some questions for me.  WooHoo!

Chapter 4 in Brain Rules is all about attention and public speaking, and since he’s a professor he describes how his knowledge of the brain has defined his approach to teaching.

SB: How can a lecturer use attention, but make sure not to abuse it? Or put another way, does repetitive use of phasic alertness, getting an audience to refocus their attention ever few minutes, have declining effects over time?

JM: I do not believe in entertainment in teaching, during the holy time information is being transferred from one person to another. I do believe in engagement, however, and there is one crucial distinction that separates the two: the content of the emotionally competent stimulus (“hook”). If the story/anecdote/case-history is directly relevant to the topic at hand (either illustrating a previously explained point or introducing a new one), the student remains engaged. Cracking a joke for the sake of a break, or telling an irrelevant anecdote at a strategic time is a form of patronizing, and students everywhere can detect it, usually with resentment, inattention or both.

Do you think the size of a classroom has any effect on students ability to  pay attention? Does Posner’s model of attention change if we are alone in conversation, vs. in an audience of 99 other people listening to a lecture?

I don’t think the size of the classroom has anything to do with the functional neural architecture proposed by Posner, but there is a universe of difference in how it behaves. The behavior has to do with our confounded predilection for socializing. People behave very differently in large crowds than they do in small crowds or even one on one. Very different teaching strategies must be deployed for each.

Bligh’s book “What’s the use of Lectures?” identifies 18-25 minutes, based on his assesment of psychology studies, as the key breakpoint for human attention in classrooms. Whether it’s 10 or 25, why do you think so few  schools or training events use these sized units as the structure for their days, or their lessons?

I don’t know why schools don’t pay attention to attention. Perhaps it is a lack of content knowledge. If I had my way,  every teacher on the planet would take two courses: First, an acting course, the only star in the academic firmament capable of teaching people how to manipulate their bodies and voices i to project information. Second, a cognitive neuroscience course, one that teaches people how the brain learns, so teachers can understand that such projections follow specific rules of engagement.

Things not to say when speaking at Microsoft

by Scott | 4/11/2009 | 8 Comments »

I was invited to speak at Microsoft’s Asian Pacific Leadership conference last week, an internal employee only event, and spoke in the McKinley room to a swell crowd of about 300 people. It was a nice event – kudos to all the organizers.

At the end of the talk, late in Q&A, someone asked about schedule estimation. You know, tricks for how to better predict how long things take.

After hemming and hawing, I mentioned wideband delphi, a good technique for teams.

The gentleman asking the question looked confused. I asked the audience. No one had heard of it either.

So I then say the last thing you should say:

“Oh. Just Google it.”

The entire crowd gave me a good spirited “booooo”.   Had there been a list of 5 things not to say, other than to ask about Vista PR or Zune marketshare,  this would have been top of the list.

Which I thought was embarrassing, but funny. I find it funny when I do really innocent, but stupid things.  I apologized, and felt bad, but it is in it’s way, comedy. A few people yelled out “Live Search!” to try and help me out. But I’d already blown it.

Hey, this stuff happens, especially during the spontiniety of Q&A.