The Ah Counter Debate Part 2: More About Ums and Ahs

My recent post on whether Toastmasters should dump the Ah counter role has sparked an interesting discussion. A few folks have posted comments to this site, sent me email and messaged me on some of the online social networking services both for and against the counting of (and caring about) filler words.

Where I stand on the issue is that unless the speaker repeatedly uses filler words over and over again, I don’t find them to be a big deal. So if someone says “ah” or “um” three times throughout a fifteen minute talk, I wouldn’t hold it against them. Now, if they started every sentence off with “ummmmmmmm…” then it would drive me crazy.

On the flip side, I don’t see much value in spending a lot of time trying to control your ums and ahs when you only make a few. Yes, there are crazy people out there that will think you’re a bad speaker just because you said “um” three times, but you need to factor in the 80/20 rule and remember that you can’t please everyone.

I really think that Toastmasters is a great organization that can help you if you find the right club. And some clubs handle the “ah counter” role better than others. The club that I belonged to would tell you how many of each filler word you used unless you used them six or more times – then they’d say “more than five.” When I was Club President, I used to reiterate this rule on occasion during club and officer meetings. But then one time we had a guest “Ah counter” from another club who then gave exact numbers. Some people had upwards of fifteen filler words in a five minute talk! At the time, I thought it was a bit harsh to allow the public sharing of actual numbers to continue but in retrospect, it was probably a good thing because people realized they had a problem. It’s like a doctor telling someone they’re morbidly obese versus saying they’re overweight. So I wonder if it should be the other way around – telling someone they had “less than five” and then giving the exact number for over five. Going back to the doctor analogy, you’d probably rather hear your doctor say that your weight is within range rather than “you need to lose three pounds to be at your perfect weight.”

Now there are some people that think even a couple ums and ahs are unacceptable. They are certainly entitled to their opinions, but are doing themselves a disservice by focusing on minute details. These are the people within Toastmasters that take away from the experience and miss the point of joining such an organization. To these people, your style is pretty much all that matters and they ding you for things like opening with “thank you,” not grabbing the audience’s attention within the first two seconds or anything else they don’t like about your style. I often wonder if these people can sit back and enjoy a talk without doing a mini evaluation of the speaker.

I feel that style is important, but it’s not everything – especially if your goal is to get paid to speak. If a company hires you to give a sales training session, they’ll be more interested in the techniques that you teach the attendees than your speaking style. As long as you don’t bore the audience, you’ll be considered a success provided the audience learns something from you. If you go out there and deliver a touching story about how you overcame your fear of cold calling with a perfect delivery, people may talk about what a wonderful talk you gave, but if the audience can’t apply what you’ve taught them, you’ve failed.

The bottom line is that I feel it’s a better use of your time to work on organizing your speech, researching your topic and working on connecting with your audience rather than trying to drop those three of four filler words from your speech. If you’re of the mindset that even a single use of a filler word ruins a speech, I wish you luck with your speaking and encourage you to stay in touch – perhaps one of us might be able to change the other’s mind.

The great Ah counter debate will continue in future posts, so please keep checking back.

Share

3 thoughts on “The Ah Counter Debate Part 2: More About Ums and Ahs

  1. Andrew Smith

    I think that the odd um/ah can make a speech sound natural. If they’re completely missed out it can sound over rehearsed. But you’re spot on when you say that repetitive umming is annoying.

    My vote would be to get rid of the Ah counter role entirely. At my Toastmasters club in London we do not have an Ah counter role at all. If the ums/ahs are offputting and need attention then the evaluator can point this out.

    Thanks, Andy.

  2. James Post author

    Andy,

    You’re right – if a speech is too perfect it might sound unnatural.

    I also like how your club just lets the evaluator handle it.

    Thanks for the comment,

    James

  3. Richard Garber

    James:

    The topic of clubs who have the Ah-counter use buzzers, clickers, or bells came up several years ago in an excruciatingly long post here: http://toastmastersfaq.blogspot.com/2006_12_01_archive.html (just do a word search for the subtitle of Things that make you go mmmm).

    On page 15 of the January 2009 Toastmaster magazine it came up again:
    “A visitor named Bill recently recalled his experience visiting a Toastmasters meeting on a military base 25 years ago – and the rather unique strategy employed by the club’s Ah-Counter. “Every ‘ah’ and ‘um’ was punctuated with a BB [a lead pellet] dropped in a Folgers coffee can,” said Bill. “I never went back!” We assured him that all of us are learning to control our ‘filler’ words by counting them, but we never subject each other to humiliation.”

    I also just did a couple of posts about filler words.
    http://joyfulpublicspeaking.blogspot.com/2009/05/more-about-filler-clutch-words.html
    and http://joyfulpublicspeaking.blogspot.com/2009/05/like-you-know-ah-um-er.html

    Richard Garber

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: