Skip to content

Leave the ooohs and ahhs to the audience

Updated: August 2, 2013 - 2:55 pm

Posted: August 2, 2013

I want to ask you a question. If you hear a speaker continually say ahh or umm or ehh, how does it affect your opinion of the speaker?

Do you think the person is more or less articulate?

Are you more or less receptive to hearing what he or she has to say?

The sounds that we make between phrases or sentences are called non-words. Most of us use these sounds to bridge to our next thought.

They aren't necessarily bad, but some people have trouble communicating a series of words or thoughts without using them extensively to connect thoughts or to begin a phrase, such as "I went to the store and... ahhh... umm... then I came home."

Many people may not notice these connective sounds. However, business professionals trying to create a good first impression or enhance their credibility before audiences whom they may not know may want to minimize unintended sounds that may make them appear nervous or unsure.

When writing, we do not have such concerns. The end of a sentence or phrase is marked with a period. In writing, a period is a stop sign. It denotes the absolute end of a thought. The next sentence begins with nothing in between except a space or two. There is no other word or sound necessary to let us know that the thought has ended.

Can you imagine if someone wrote something like this: My favorite dog's name is Fido... ahhhhhhhh... Everyone would wonder why the extra non-word was added to the sentence. A period means that a thought has ended. Nothing else is needed to finish the thought. Nothing.

Speech experts contend that just becoming aware of non-words and fillers is not enough to get rid of them. Also ineffective is the use of extensive pauses between phrases. Though pauses are an effective speech tool to accentuate a point, pauses that are too long invite an "umm'er" to insert an umm or two after an extended pause.

To help with non-words, some experts recommend the speech strategy of "chunking." If you saw the movie, "The King's Speech," you saw "chunking" in action. Instead of saying one word at a time, speech therapists ask speakers to speak in phrases and maintain silence between each phrase. If "chunks" are delivered rhythmically, these "chunks" aid in eliminating non-words. By developing a rhythm as they "chunk," many "umm'ers" see their umms, ahhs and ehhs magically disappear.

Non-words and fillers are a normal part of speaking. Our mind may not be engaged, when we are "umming," but our mouth, throat, voice box and lungs are functioning and are ready to make sounds.

In most cases, people should not worry about non-words. Worrying too much about them may actually cause more to pop up. However, they can be reduced and/or eliminated with knowledge and practice.

Speakers want oohs and ahhs coming from their audiences, not unintended sounds from their own mouths.

Bob Stowers is a clinical professor of management and leadership communications at the Mason School of Business at the College of William and Mary. Visit /directory/stowers_r.php.