Does Toastmasters Really Need the Ah Counter Role?

I’ll never forget my first Toastmasters meeting back in 2002. There were three fantastic speeches followed by my favorite part of the meeting – Table Topics. If you’re not familiar with Table Topics, it’s the part of the meeting where folks are welcomed to come up and speak “off the cuff” about the topic of the day. I participated and lasted 47 seconds. And, thanks to the person in the “Ah Counter” role, I found out that I had some filler words. At first, I found that role to be very cool and useful, but there’s two reasons why I question whether or not it’s needed – or even helpful.

The first reason I question the usefulness of it is that I think society has become less formal in recent years and therefore, the standards for what constitutes a good speech (or a good speaker) have dropped. Barack Obama, whether you love him or hate him, is a fantastic and inspiring speaker. However, he (when not using a teleprompter) frequently uses “ums” and “ahs” and no one (outside of his critics and Toastmasters that are obsessed with style) really seems to care. Watching the primary debates for both parties, only Obama and Mitt Romney stood out as great speakers – others were good by today’s standards (and others not so good), but these were the two that stood out to me.

I think the reason for this is that there has been a shift in what constitutes a great speaker. In the past, you needed good substance as well as good style – Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were examples of modern Presidents that spoke well and connected with people. Now, if you can relay a powerful message, most audiences will forgive a few filler words – provided you don’t say “you know” every five seconds.

The second reason I feel that counting filler words is unnecessary (and possibly destructive) is the obsessions that some folks have within Toastmasters with pointing out “ums” and “ahs.” Before I continue, I want to say that I feel Toastmasters is a fantastic organization and have connected with some wonderful people throughout the years because of it. I even recommend it to people that take my public speaking classes. The problem though, is the supportiveness of the organization attracts its share of social misfits – people that either think the world is a Toastmasters meeting or don’t know how to interact with people outside of Toastmasters. These people are a small minority, but their impact is huge and can make the experience less enjoyable for those that encounter them.

A friend of mine who frequently speaks to groups told me that he hated when someone from the audience was a Toastmaster because they’d come up to him afterwards and tell him how many ums and ahs were in his talk. “It’s like those were the only words they heard” he’d complain to me “even though the rest of the audience loved it.” I told him that most people in the organization are not like that – I explained my friends from my former club would never do that outside of Toastmasters. However, I too have been dinged by the “Ah Police” during a recent talk because I had three pregnant pauses – like my friend, the rest of the audience had positive feedback for me.

I know some changes are happening at the International level within Toastmasters. I think the best changes are those that happen at the club level – it’s the best forum for debating the importance of style versus content, the effectiveness of counting ah & ums and keeping the social misfits under control. Toastmasters is a great organization but there’s much bigger world of speaking out there beyond it.

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13 thoughts on “Does Toastmasters Really Need the Ah Counter Role?

  1. Olivia Mitchell

    Hi James
    Jinx* – I just wrote about ums at my blog. I was thinking of writing a paragraph about the ahh counter at Toastmasters. I was in Toastmasters for about 10 years and I thought it was the most counterproductive strategy. I agree exactly with what you say about it. Olivia
    *not sure if jinx is a universal term or not. Its what two children will say when they both say the same thing at once.

  2. Kip

    I have to disagree, even before I was in Toastmasters the Um and Ah bothered me, of course my ear is more tuned to it now.

    I also have to disagree with the reasoning that “society as become less formal”. When we let things slip we let it become less formal. I know many people don’t stay up on current news, unless it is about a celebrity or a reality show, that doesn’t mean that I should stop educating myself too.

  3. Michele

    I too disagree, because the constant use of filler detracts from the credibility of the message. It also wastes time, something I do not always have a lot of, just to get the message across.

    It also detracts from my credibility as a speaker, if I cannot get my ideas across fluently. So I avoid them like the plague, and am grateful for my toastmasters training that taught me a hesitatin pause makes an ‘um’ or an ‘er’ unnecessary.

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  5. James Post author

    Olivia,

    I think you and I jinx a lot – it’s kind of funny. That’s probably why we each enjoy each other’s blogs.

    Kip,

    First, thanks for posting – you raise valid points. I agree that too many ums and ahs can ruin a speech (as can predictable movement, etc…). My question is that whether a few ums and ahs in speech really make a difference and can get you more benefit from working on another area of speaking.

    I certainly don’t think that people should stop educating themselves, but I do believe that the law of diminishing returns comes into play with self-improvement. If I had to choose between spending 10 hours getting rid of those last few ums and ahs or 10 hours learning my material better, I’d choose the latter.

    Michele,

    I agree with you about too many ums and ahs – they do make you sound less credible. Glad that you’ve moved on to pauses instead – I recommended them when I evaluated people when I was a Toastmaster. Of course, I got dinged on them by a Toastmaster recently.

    Thanks to all for the comments.

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  7. Jeff Bailey

    Put me in the NO column. Toastmasters count ums and ahs because it is easy. A simple “the ums and ahs” are a distraction is enough. The evaluators can handle it.

    There are lots of Toastmasters missing the points of lots of presentations because they are counting instead of listening.

  8. JB Abraham

    So long as a speaker can get rid of the aahs ,ers and umms,by being aware of it, the aah count will be a good feedback.The quality of the presentating will be low if and when the distractions are present.
    I er …hope you and-eh …. I mean aah you got it i er.. suppose

  9. Paul Simkins

    So we should relax our standards and not demand the best from ourselves because it just doesn’t matter? Sorry, not buying it. No matter whether the general public “seems” to care ( and in reality I think they do), I care enough to be the very best speaker I can be and to communicate as effectively as I can. A brief mention in the eval is not enough as most people aren’t aware when they do it and how often. Correcting audible pauses has to be a conscious effort and you therefore must be aware of when you use them.

  10. James Post author

    Wow, sorry for missing some of the comments on here.

    Jeff,

    I agree 100% with you. I think a simple comment during the evaluation is enough rather than the exact count of ums, ahs, etc…. Then the speaker knows to watch out for filler words.

    JB,

    I agree that ums and ahs are a distraction and it’s great to get rid of them. I remember listening to speaker years before I even knew about Toastmasters who said “you know” so many times that the person next to me was keeping track (and no, he wasn’t in Toastmasters either). So it’s definitely a problem.

    Paul,

    I don’t think that people should relax their standards. I just think that too many people take ums and ahs too seriously. I do have to say that I’m kind of on the fence on this one because I’ve been thinking a lot about the topic since I originally wrote this post. If you’ve ever been to a Disney park, you’ve probably noticed that they pay extreme attention to detail, even though most people don’t notice it. There are benefits to doing this, just like there are benefits to taking the time to pay that much attention to detail when giving a speech.

    I might have to revisit this one. Thanks for the comments.

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