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.