Toastmasters - Collected Wisdom

These are summaries of the collected wisdom of contributors to a Toastamsters newsgroup which operated between 1995 and 2008 and ToastmastersPrime, a Google group which commenced in 2008. This is not an official Toastmasters site, but is an edited collection of posts from the newsgroup and the Google group. These groups provide an unofficial means of communicating for an enthusiastic group of Toastmasters from throughout the world.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Things that make you go mmmm

In January 2002 there was a discussion on umms and ahhs and more specifically the use of audible devices. the thread was Things that make you go ummm.
First, a disclosure. On many occasions I have opposed the use of audible devices in posts to the group. This summary should be a test of my ability to summarize impartially. I will try to put more emphasis on the benefits of using an audible device.

I started the post with a couple of hypotheses that may or may not be true:

Most people only ummm or err when they are nervous. The gradual reduction of this habit in a Toastmasters club before a friendly supportive audience will not be reflected in their speaking outside this comfort zone. True or false, from your experience?

Highlighting the umms and errs with bells, or even counts is more likely to stop the person speaking than cure the habit. True or false?

Joy responded:
As we eliminate these crutches, we gain confidence, so we are not as likely to resort to them in another setting. Also, as we eliminate them, we become more aware of them and work to avoid them. If we are speaking in another setting and let one slip in, we probably notice it, and make an effort not to repeat it.

As to losing the member rather than curing the habit, Joy thought this depends on the individual. For a new Toastmaster who is extremely nervous, it is probably true at first. However, after gaining some experience, and some confidence, most people learn to take the bell in stride.

Gene would hate to get belled as it would interrupt my speech. (The audience is also going to hear the bell.) I would be especially ticked off in those cases where I *deliberately* um-ah.

Evaluations and the Grammarian's report are the places to comment about um-ahs. "I noted that, in a few places where you had complex sentences, you um-ahed more than usual. Perhaps simpler sentences?"

If the speaker really has trouble with um-ahing, then maybe something special could be done, but it usually isn't necessary.

Rod had never been at a meeting where a bell or any form of audible device was used. Most clubs here have an 'Umm, aah counter'. I don't know the reason for this. It may be that most of the audience want to listen to the speaker without disruption or it may be simply tradition.

If what the speaker is saying is so interesting and they grab my attention to the extent that I don't notice the ums and ahs, then the count is of academic interest anyway and the hesitancy may as well not exist.

In one of the clubs I visit regularly there is a member who still uses many ums and ahs. He is now on the advanced programme, has plenty of experience, does not lack confidence and makes regular presentations to international conferences and committees in his line of work. For him, his use of these verbal crutches is similar to stuttering. Like stuttering, it's a dimension of the problem that is beyond the normal capability of Toastmasters to cure.

To which Dana replied Or maybe, he just hasn't had the benefit of the bell?!!!!!

Denis believes that verbal hesitancy is a manifestation of nervousness. I have seen many speakers reduce their UM's without anything more than practice speaking.
If speaker reaches certain point, comfort zone travels with them!

He absolutely detests AH bells and find AH counters to be unhelpful!! They would certainly cure my attendance at the club that employs them!

New members who have visited our club discuss visiting other clubs with bells and counters, they have trepidation about their speaking, their appearance, etc. - I know the bell exacerbates this anxiety.

Instead he has suggested to members that a second evaluator focus only on the AH's & UM's in the speech. Specifically the evaluator looks at WHEN the speaker commits the UM. Is there a pattern? Is it during bridges, transitions, etc? This report is delivered privately. Also this AH evaluator will talk about if the verbal hesitancy was a barrier to the message.

This has been well accepted by our members and also seems to be helping those folks who have more of a problem.

So in sum, don't count unless you are also ready to report on when.

Rae does not recall any advice being provided on how to avoid verbal fillers in seven+ years .

She has seen many "confident/experienced" speakers still use quite a bit of uhms and ahs. In fact, I have just finished a two day workshop lead be a very confident/competent speaker that had far too many uhms for my liking. I felt that they were distracting. Yet at the same time I felt the workshop was very effective and I doubt that anyone besides myself even noticed the uhms.

Re skill transfer, Rae believes that experience/skill/proficiency in one area will cross over to another area of a person's life. Working as a therapist we illustrate that factor frequently. You often have to illustrate the connection or the sameness to the person though. Personally, I have managed to almost extinguish ahs and ums at least from prepared presentations. The odd one slips through on Table Topics. They rarely pop up when I make a presentation at work at a staff meeting.

She only has club experience with counting the Ahs and receiving a report at the end of the meeting. This was helpful for me. It did not stop me from talking. Our club in recent years has changed the practice of presenting an award for the most Ahs, which reinforced negative behaviour, to that of presenting an award for the most improved. I believe that this has been helpful.

I have seen responses in this group in the past both supporting and against the use of bells, sounding devices, tapping a spoon on water glass and even clapping. From a Skinnerian behavior modification approach I believe that the best way to extinguish or remove a negative/distracting habit would be to reward the improvement and not to punish the lack of change or continuance in the habit. I have found it just as effective to actually count the ahs in another speaker. It forces you to listen and makes you more aware in your own speech.

Bob has visited a number of clubs that do the ah/um notations differently. At my home club, we drop marbles into a can. That will get your attention (personally I think it is too distracting, but I have virtually eliminated them from most of my prepared speeches).

Another uses a mechanical counter (you can hear the click if it is quiet enough) to a third that only counts the ahs/ums. What I find is that in the clubs where there is an acknowledgement at the time of the ah/um, there is a great reduction.

However, in the 3rd club where they only count, it seems as though they are more prevalent. I think that the mechanical counter is the least distracting, but still is audible enough to notice. I would prefer to go in that direction, where they are noticed, but not to the point that it takes away from the presenter.

The whole theory behind why we um and ah is that supposedly it is an unconscious mechanism. Bringing our attention to it when we say um or ah (by bells, or clickers, etc.) takes the behavior out of the unconscious and into the conscious where we have more control. So theoretically, just bringing it to our attention is enough.

A bell or clacker can get us in the habit of being conscious when we say these fillers, at first usually right after we say it, then with practice before we say it. At that point, we can choose whether or not to use the ah or um. (that's the theory at least) The tough part, I think, is remaining diligent enough to spot the ums and ahs before they happen (like going on a diet, it's the discipline that kills you).

I think the major determinant of whether a person is comfortable with a bell or clicker is how well the person can resume a speech after being interrupted. Comfort with the audience, topic, etc. can play a part in this but some people are just better than others at handling interruptions.

Personally, if I trust my audience, and I'm highly motivated to improve my ability, I can take small interruptions like this in stride. But take away the trust (maybe someone has a hidden agenda) and suddenly my comfort level plummets to zero.

Rick found just counting and reporting number of Ahs of no value.
I belonged to my first club for almost a year in spite of the weekly embarrassment of having the most or second most ahs. Knowing that I could get 15-20 ahs into a 1 to 1:30 minute table topic did nothing to help me improve.
I then joined a club that used a clicker. The first meeting it was very distracting. Soon, I got used to it. In a couple months, my ahs were getting close to zero.
It was having the feedback right when the ahh or you know occurred that allowed me to eliminate them.

In the majority of cases, ums and ahs can be dramatically reduced through awareness. This requires a level of confidence since when the mind is focused on feelings, the audience, words, gestures, facial expressions and a myriad other things, it's difficult to concentrate on everything at one time. Audible devices create this awareness but, in my opinion, the negative aspects of the interruption outweigh the benefit. Although I've never attended a meeting where such a device was used, I feel that it would focus attention on hesitancy that may be trivial and unnoticed by the audience as a whole. It is not necessary completely to eliminate ums and ahs.

Reducing them to non-noticeable and non-distracting levels is fine in most cases. I'm in full agreement that identifying the 'when' aspect is particularly valuable.
There are some pathologies where the syndrome is so deeply ingrained that a 'cure' is beyond bells, counters, video or the Toastmasters programme. These may require the attention of a psychiatrist or psychologist.

Kelly wouldn't recommend ringing a bell for novice speakers.

Umms can be caused by a multitude of reasons, nervousness, insufficient preparation and sometimes plain inexperience.

New speakers often have the impression that it is important to never stop speaking, so rather than take a few seconds to gather their thoughts they will try to fill up dead air with ums and ahhs. One exercise that I used while in speech and debate in High School, was to tell novice speakers to simply pause if they couldn't think of anything to say, sure at first there were a lot of pauses, but soon as they developed their skills to think on their feet, increased their vocabulary and learned how to prepare, the pauses would disappear.

Table topics is also a great way to help with the ums, since it improves your ability to think quickly on your feet, so that rather than having to fill dead air with filler words, you can quickly think about what you want to say next.

It's also important to emphasise that time seems to expand when you're giving a speech. What may seem like an incredibly long and noticeable pause to you is often unnoticeable by the audience, and if noticed usually quickly forgotten.

In her club they leave it up to the individual. In either case we count ums, but we will ring a bell if the speaker desires it. Some people like having the cue others find it distracting.

In April 1997, Sharon was looking for suggestions on what we could use in place of a little clicking device (in the shape of an alligator) that is quite loud. Members feel this can be embarrassing to the speaker (pointing out in front of everyone that they goofed) and they often lose their train of thought, so asked what other clubs use for a 'clicker.' The thread was Ah Counter

Dave would never draw attention to ahs and ums as the person is doing it. We have a fine system, whereby each member is charged 25 cents for each ah/um, up to a maximum of $1 per meeting. As President, since I need to speak at every meeting, I get to pay my share of money to the fund!

Mike uses a bell to call attention to ahs during all portions of the meeting except formal speeches and yes it does cause a few butterflies every time it is rung, but I would not do away with it or the clicker or what any other device a club might use to call attention to the ahs at the time that they happen.

The first 6 months of my membership it seemed as if the bell was going off constantly while I was speaking during my function or during my participation in table topics but it then it subsided and after a year in the club I rarely have to pay our fine of $0.05 per ah, this was true even during my stint as President.

I would suggest that your club needs to look at what works in helping people improve in their reduction of ahs and do what ever it is that furthers that end. We explain that this is the function of the bell and since people are there to improve their speaking skills they accept and even encourage it after they start seeing their own improvement.

Bill also felt the noise device was counter productive and did away with it some years ago. We also quit reporting huge amounts of Ahs on our speakers. What we do now is to report only the first 3 Ahs and if a person has three we say at the end of the meeting that they had their limit. There is no purpose in reporting 14 ahs and embarrassing someone. In our club the goal is to not be mentioned at all in the Ah masters report.

Jeanette lost potential members because they were afraid of or too intimidated by our AH bell. We know these because we asked them about their impressions of our meetings, and this is what they told us.

At the beginning of table topics, Rick announces that the are optional for guests. The same thing could be done for the clicker. When the grammarian describes the job, s/he could mention that it's a tool for the more advanced speakers that are working on their audible pauses.

For Alex, other than walking through the door the first time, the ah/um counting is the next scariest thing a guest encounters. Of course, we'd *never* ping a guest, even if they volunteered to speak.

But the benefits of this "tough-love" are clear. At our club we tend to be lenient to new members. A few pings early on (say up to a max of 5) and let the new member be self-policing. It's a little scary at first, but with the rest of us pulling for them, they pass through that period and become ah-less.

Once a Toastmaster become more experienced, the 'pinging' becomes more regular. It worried me as a guest, but I'm 99.9% um/ahless now even outside of the clubs I belong to.
Yet, we should make every effort to impress on the guests that whatever method we use (visual, audio, end-meeting-report) is all part in parcel of becoming a better speaker.

John F has seen a variety of ways that clubs handle the whole Ah counter business.

I visited one club that had a nice loud beeper. Every time you said 'Ah' the counter would hit the button and you'd hear a loud 'Beeeep.' Not much different from your clicker. The advantage to this method is 'immediate feedback.'

Other clubs handle it a bit differently. The Ah counter simply keeps track of the Ahs, Ums, Er's, etc. on a piece of paper. At the end of the meeting the Ah counter gives a report. For Example: The person with the most Ahs was Joe Bloggins with 46. Jane Doe had 15. And so on. This way, you don't lose your train of thought, but you lose the immediate feedback too.

Steve felt clickers, bells, buzzers, and other noisemakers for such purposes should be banned from all Toastmasters Clubs. I have been to Clubs where such devices are used, and (believe you me) if I never saw Toastmasters before in my life, I doubt that I would've become one.

Dara has a clicker and uses it during table topics, evals, and other speaking. But we do not use it during prepared speeches. I really like how we do it like this, but it doesn't distract the speakers or listeners, but when people are talking in general it helps.

Bill considers the bells, clickers and other devices not only to be rude but down right sadistic. After 17 years in this organization I can say that if that became a practice through out our organization I would be forced to leave and could no longer recommend it to potential members.
Sadomasochists derive great pleasure from watching others squirm when the bell rings or the clicker sounds and many even enjoy the pain themselves. Keep in mind that these are the same people that learned to quit smoking by putting a rubber band on their wrist and snapped themselves when they thought about smoking. They believe firmly in the "No Pain, No Gain" philosophy and I really doubt that any amount of reason will change their minds.

On the other hand it is imperative that positive people not fall into their negative trap and allow this rude teaching technique to infect other clubs. Positive reinforcement has always been the hallmark of our group, I hope it remains that way.

Mike thought it would be better to videotape (if possible) the speech for the speaker to review at his/her leisure, and also use the video tape for evaluation purposes at the request of the speaker.

Rob has never been a fan of the "ah" counter and our club has not done it at all. If individual speakers want to have their "ahs" counted, we leave it up to them and they can coordinate with their evaluator. It should suffice to have the evaluator simply point out to the speaker that he/she either had a lot of "ahs" or very few. The exact number is of no benefit in my opinion.
And a CLICKER?? I think that is COMPLETELY out of place. It's like ringing a bell every time you mess up. Is that what Toastmasters is about? Keeping track of how many times we screw up? I certainly would not go to a club that had that type of emphasis. If someone starting making loud clicking noises with every "ah," it would be the first and LAST time I ever went to that club.

The "ahs" and "ums" naturally reduce as the speaker gets more and more practice and more confidence. Let's encourage that. Let's lose the "ah" counter mentality.

Jeanette's club used a small bell and dropped that in favor of an AH Log book, in which we record the number of ahs and other verbal pauses for each speaker. At the end of the meeting our Ah counter announces the winners--the people who did not commit any verbal pauses.

Those who did can check the book privately afterwards, plus track their improvement over the course of time.

Gary uses a clicker and it work quite well. It if draws attention to the speaker that they are speaking incorrectly, then it is worth the annoyance, and if they can't keep their train of thought, then what are they going to do in a real speaking engagement where there will be a lot more interruptions than just the clicker.
Our purpose is to teach better speaking habits and prepare ourselves to speak properly in public, handling all interruptions and annoyances.

David believes Ah counting to be instrumental to the program. The bell (in our case) must be used constructively and never during prepared projects. I like to ding the first obvious ah and then ding intermittently when I think the speaker has settled down a little. We have many people with their pet filler those should be hit a little harder. Noise is immediate; actual counts after the fact are of questionable value. I like to say "Toastmasters with more than one ah are:...

Rick disagreed that the clicker shouldn't be used during prepared speeches. The clicker showed me that most of my speech was well rehearsed, but I got clicked during the transitions between points. I started to work on the transitions and the ahs when down there too.

For Kathie, the purpose of the clicker is not to embarrass the speaker. Many years ago, I learned to speak without my pronounced Texas drawl. This is done in a "start/stop" method, the purpose of which is to train your ear to hear yourself use phonetic substitutions.

The same principle applies to the ah horn/clicker/buzzer. It points out the infraction so the speaker can train his/her ear to hear the ah. When you're aware of them, you can eliminate them. I know most Toastmasters hate the Ah horn, but it does serve a very important purpose.

Cassandra described a series of different approaches.

In one (great) club they have a detailed grid system. There are spaces for each participants name and tally spaces under headings like uh, um, ya know, repeated words, elongated words (Sooooooooo, ) and several others. The challenge to the Ah counter is to listen carefully and, though they are not a stuffily serious group, everyone applaudes and admires the ah counter who really does the job.

In another (strong, vibrant) club they silently count ah's and report them at the end of the meeting without fines or outraged speakers claiming barbarism. This process has served them well for many years- though at one point in their 50 year history, they did have a huge (size of a freestanding lecturn) box that faced the speaker with a light shone whenever the speaker misspoke.

Another nearby favorite club does a (quiet) fining process and makes it clear that if you want to pay the fine, do. If you don't want to, you shouldn't reach for the quarters. And this hasn't scared off so many people that the club folded at any time in the past 45 years.

In my club we use a clicker. We don't click guests or icebreakers, but everyting else is clicked, unless the person requests that we refrain. We announce the scores at the end of the meeting and the "winner" gets to take home the ceramic "wide mouth frog" While we laugh, joke, and keep things "light," we agree that we are all there to improve our skills. Overlooking each others bad habits doesn't serve that goal. We are kind, suportive, and HONEST with each other. If someone hears the clicker as they speak, they can immediately put in the corrections.

We encourage each other to breath, or stop talking and collect thier thoughts, rather than continue to "verbally trip, stumble, or freefall." The positive reinforcement comes when we encourage people to continue doing EXACTLY what they are doing- showing up and practicing, becuase we know that WILL work. Also, we posiitvely reinforce improvement, which can only be measured by comparison.

George suggested using a small light to indicate Ahhs. This light would be situated so only the speaker could see it and would be as unobtrusive as possible. I'm thinking something like a night-light -- small enough to not cast a shadow on the wall behind the speaker, but bright enough to be seen by the speaker. This would also keep from distracting the audience with an audible click.

Don't use the light for the Toastmaster's first few speeches -- maybe the first 5 or so. This way, the beginning speaker can concentrate on those butterflies and not be distracted by an Ahh light. However, after a few speeches to "get into the swing of things," the light could be used as a subtle, and immediate, Skinner Training Device.

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