When we meet a person, our first impression is based on their body language and their speech. When someone goes up on a stage, or gives a presentation at a business meeting, many pairs of eyes will be following and judging this person. If you are up there and talking, you want to give your best impression.
While many workshops and online videos focus on teaching us how to adjust our body language to come across as confident and convince others of our message, less attention is given to how we phrase things. Speech should flow, but there is this one little bad habit most of us have; one that builds a dam in our flowing sentences. This habit makes our message sound as if we are building our foundations on quicksand.
Do you know which bad habit I mean?
It is the habit of using that not-even-a-word in too many sentences. It is the habit of saying “uhm”—something we generally are not even aware of. When we let this habit slip into our speech, it weakens our message, and our audience and clients will be less convinced of our claims.
Make a pledge today: drop the “uhm”.
The nasty thing about “uhm” is that it’s often too tiny to even notice. It has become part of our expressions and virtually everybody does it, therefore, it takes practice and effort to unlearn stuffing our sentences with it.
To get a hold of your bad habit of using “uhm”, you can try the following exercises:
1. Record your speech when you prepare.
To go from using “uhm” without even noticing it, to awareness of this bad habit is the first step to making a change. When you prepare for a presentation, make sure to record yourself.
Ideally, you can use a videocamera on a tripod to record your speech and body language. Most of us, however, prepare presentations by sitting in front of the computer screen and talking through the slides to see if we meet the time requirements. If you prepare in this way, simply use a voice recorder.
After recording your speech, listen to it. Pay close attention, and mark down on a sheet of paper the number of times you said “uhm”. You might be unpleasantly surprised.
2. Write out your entire speech beforehand.
We use “uhm” when we know the contents and message that we want to get across to our audience, but not the exact sentences and formulations to actually deliver our ideas, so the best way to prepare for a speech and to distill our message into crystal-clear sentences is by writing out the entire speech beforehand.
This practice might seem too much work. You should remember though that 1 minute of public speaking requires 1 hour of preparation time, as Wayne Burgraff famously stated.
If you are serious about delivering your best and getting your message through in the very best way, then spend enough time on writing out your speech and improving it time and time again.
3. Center and focus.
Before addressing a client or an audience, take a moment to center yourself. You can take a few deep breaths, and a 5-minute body scan, in which you pay attention to tension in your shoulders, how you clench your jaw, or any tension you feel in your neck.
Then, take half a minute to set your mind to your goal. Simply remind yourself of the main purpose of your speech or meeting.
You are ready to go now. Give it your best shot, enjoy the ride and don’t judge yourself while you are talking—it will only distract you. Be in the moment. Be your message and your goal.
4. Pay attention when you talk to friends.
Your practice does not end when you leave the stage or your job. Even when you talk to friends or strangers, pay attention to your exact formulations, and cut down on the “uhm”-ing.
One way of actively paying attention and correcting your habit, is by wearing an elastic band around your wrist during your leisure time. Whenever you catch yourself on saying “uhm”, simply shift the elastic band to your other wrist. This practice trains your mind to notice your use of “uhm”, and eventually omit it.
5. Slow down.
If you have a bad case of the “uhm”s, then train yourself in speaking a little more slowly. Teach yourself to leave a few seconds of air in between your sentences. The purpose of slowing down is to align your mind with your speech, so you give your mind the time to clearly define what you want to say, before actually speaking.
With these tools, you are ready to make a more coherent, decisive and calm impression on your audience, your clients, your friends and random strangers. Radiating with a more composed attitude will not only improve your speech, but will eventually increase the respect others show towards you.