The Gift of a Smile


It was getting dark on a bitterly cold winter afternoon in Winnipeg.  I was sixteen and returning home from an after-school piano lesson that had not gone well.  Standing at the bus stop, chin tucked in and shoulders hunched in the heat-conserving posture that most Canadians adopt for five or six months of the year, I felt just then that very little in my entire life was going well.

The bus stop was a transfer point.  Bus after bus pulled up to the curb to discharge and take on passengers, all but the one I was waiting for.  Yet another unwanted bus arrived, and I happened to lift my eyes forlornly to its windows.  Directly opposite me sat a young woman, not many years older than I, in the window seat.  She looked down at me…our eyes met…and she smiled.

I was stunned!  A perfect stranger had looked at my wretched self and smiled!  A kind, friendly smile that said, “Everything’s going to be alright.”  It was the last thing on earth I would have expected, but the warmth it brought my heart may have been what I most needed in the whole world.  I hope I smiled back at her, though I may have been too shocked.  For nearly fifty years, I have remembered the gift of that smile, over and over, and have blessed that young woman every time.

It’s a gift you give to yourself.
Even from a purely physiological standpoint, smiling at your audience is a smart thing to do.  Researchers have discovered that when a person’s face crinkles into a smile, that particular muscle movement causes their brain to release serotonin and endorphins.  Those are the chemicals that make us feel good – safe, relaxed and happy.  It works even if you don’t feel like smiling.  Try this.  The next time you’re feeling glum, hold a pencil between your teeth.  That will cause your facial muscles to mimic the smiling movement.  Keep the pencil there for a couple of minutes.  No kidding, you’ll start to feel better!

It’s a gift you give to others.
People love to be smiled at.  I would go so far as to call it a need inside all of us.  Whether they are consciously aware of it or not, the people you speak to want you to smile at them.  They want your warmth and acknowledgement, and they notice if it’s missing.  On either side of the human brain are “mirror neurons” that make it probable that when you smile at someone, that person will mirror your emotion.  He or she will smile in response to your smile.  Then their brain releases those good-feeling chemicals.  Thanks to those chemicals, you are now associated in that person’s brain with feeling good.  You have fulfilled a need, and because of that, Presto!  Your listeners are immediately more receptive to you.  They will warm to you when you warm to them.  A simple smile makes the difference.

It needs to be a real smile, though, not a mere stretching of the lips.  The smile needs to reach your eyes.  Indeed, when you look at someone with appreciation, when you welcome them into your space, the smile originates in your eyes, and because it feels so good, your mouth decides to join in the fun.

Do we all take ourselves far too seriously?  Why not make yourself and everybody around you feel better?  Let’s all smile a lot more often.

I wish you all a very happy festive season, full of warmth, friendship and lots of smiles.

SPEAK UP! Webinar Still Available

GOOD NEWS!  If you missed my webinar, “SPEAK UP! How to Talk So People Listen”, you can watch a recording of it!  We’re re-playing it on four dates over the holiday season, with two times on each day.  Here’s a gift for yourself or someone you care about – 30 minutes of valuable information to enhance your presenting style forever.

Click here to see the dates and register for your free link to the Webinar Room.

Happy Holidays, everyone!


Three Qualities of a Great Human Being

The Respect Tree TM small file

Bullying happens among both children and adults. I’ve been invited to give workshops to Grades 5 – 8 in a local school, with the intention of doing more than teach public speaking.  I’ll be teaching presentation skills as a means of raising the quality of student interaction.  I believe that increasing young people’s feeling of empowerment and empathy will change the very culture among the students.  I believe that by focusing on positive relationships we can do more to prevent bullying than by cracking down on it after it has happened.  Here’s how I plan to begin my workshops:

Do you like to have other people like you?  Of course!  It’s nice when people like you.  It feels good.  Not everybody you meet will like you, just as you won’t like everybody you meet.  But taken as a big picture, you have the power, and can develop the skills, to make most people like you.  And even if you don’t like somebody, the same skills will at least enable the two of you to get along.  What might not have occurred to you is that having other people like you isn’t just nice, it’s necessary. Necessary?

The Customer

Picture this:  You’re hungry and decide to have a pizza.  There are two pizza places in town, and they both make good pizza, so in terms of the food, you could go to either place.  However, in one restaurant, the employees are friendly and they smile when you walk in the door.  You like them.  In the other restaurant, the people are cold and don’t make you feel welcome.  You’re not comfortable with these people.  Which restaurant are you going to go to?  The one where you like the people.  Which restaurant is going to have better business?  So, for the success of a business, is it important that customers like you?

The Employee

Imagineyourself applying for a job at both of these pizza places. When you go for your job interviews, you discover that one boss is friendly, and appreciates his or her employees.  You get the feeling this boss respects their employees as people.  The other boss is frowning and intimidating.  You feel as if this boss simply sees employees as bodies to take orders and bring in money.  You don’t like this person.  Let’s say both bosses offer you a job with the same pay.  Whose offer are you more likely to accept?  Which boss are you likely to be happier working for?  The boss you like.  As a boss who wants to attract good workers, does it matter if your employees like you for respecting and appreciating them?

The Boss

Let’s sayyou’re the owner of the restaurant.  You have employees working for you.  Does whether your employees feel happy and respected make a difference to how well they work?  Yes, it does.  Happy people work more productively than unhappy people.  It’s a fact.  What’s more, happy people work bettertogether as a team.  Good teams are more efficient and more productive.  So, as a business owner, are you going to be looking for employees who are good team players?  Or doesn’t it matter if your employees are unpleasant to one another and gossiping behind each other’s back?  Yes, it matters, because people work better together when they get along.  As a boss, is it more to your advantage to have happy employees who feel valued and respected, and who like you and each other, or resentful employees who feel intimidated and disrespected, and who don’t like you and have no sense of teamwork?  So, does it matter that people like you?  Is it important to know how to get people to like you?

Soft Skills

What we’re talking about here is called “soft skills” or “people skills”.  These are the skills that enable people to work effectively and harmoniously together, to get along.  Leaders in every field of our world are finding that the soft skills, the people skills, are just as necessary as the hard skills – the things you can measure, like knowledge and physical skills.  It also happens that these soft skills are the very same skills that help people to be happy inside.  Your principal has had the vision to see that it will be useful to you to be introduced to these people skills now, early in your life.  Knowing these skills will not only make you happier right away, but it will set you up for success in whatever you choose to do in your future.

So, why am I here to talk to you about this?  Who am I?  I’m what’s called a presentation skills trainer.  I teach people how to speak effectively in public, how to give presentations that achieve the results the speaker is looking for.  Now, it just so happens that the qualities that make you an engaging, memorable speaker are the very same qualities that make people like you.  Every time you speak in public – and by the way, speaking in public isn’t just giving a presentation or a speech; it’s every time you’re talking to someone who isn’t you – every time you speak in public, you have an opportunity to practice the people skills that will make you happier and make other people like you.

Like it or not, speaking in public, whether it’s to one person or a thousand people, will be an important part of your life, for the rest of your life.  In the two sessions we’ll have together, you’re going to learn the three qualities that will make you an effective, successful speaker.  And they just happen to be the same qualities that will make people like you.

What are those qualities?  Confidence – confidence is attractive – people like to be with confident people, Connection – great speakers know how to connect with their listeners, how to create a genuine, human-to-humanrelationship with others,and Courtesy – great speakers know how to speak to others in an appropriate way.  Those three qualities, Confidence, Connection and Courtesy are like three branches on a tree, all stemming from the same root.  And the root is Respect.

Self Confidence starts with self respect.  Great speakers feel good about themselves, and believe it or not, that’s something that everybody can do.  Connection is about respecting others.  When you make a genuine connection with another, you do so because you respect that person as a fellow human being.  And Courtesy is about respecting the relationship you have with others, speaking and behaving in a way that nurtures that relationship, and doesn’t take it for granted.

Confidence, Connection and Courtesy – three qualities of a great speaker and a great human being.

How Do You Handle a Negative Audience Member?


Here’s a question that was sent in by someone who watched my recent webinar:  “How do you handle someone who is negative about the presentation?”

I wasn’t sure what kind of negativity she was referring to, so I touched on a few different situations.  This is my answer:

It’s really important for presenters to disconnect themselves from concern about the audience’s opinion.  If you’re worried about their attitude toward you, you’re caught in the trap of seeking approval, instead of just giving the best you have and “letting the chips fall where they may”.  For your own well being, you mustn’t take negativity personally.

The Silent Scowl

Let’s take silent negativity first.  If by “negative”, you’re meaning simple unresponsiveness, like someone sitting out there with a scowl on his face, remember that your presentation might not be the reason he’s scowling.  There could be any number of things going on in his personal life – from a minor irritation to something really tragic – that are the cause of that look on his face.  Don’t take it personally.  Even if someone is being critical, if you’ve done your research, you’re prepared and you’re giving your best, you’re doing your job.  That person’s critical attitude is their problem, not yours.

The Aggressor

If an audience member makes negative comments or asks argumentative questions, never become argumentative in return.  It’s possible to have a different viewpoint without being rude, so if that’s what’s coming at you, take the high ground.  Stay calm, impersonal and polite.  Use your judgement about how long to let the situation continue.  If it looks as if the person is taking too long or is disrupting the overall flow of the presentation, you might have to politely suggest that there isn’t time in this setting to discuss the issue fully, and perhaps he or she would like to meet with you afterwards.  Sometimes people like that just want to get attention and hear themselves talk.  A one-on-one conversation with you would deprive them of their audience, so they probably wouldn’t be interested.  Again, their negativity is their issue, not yours.  Be careful not to own someone else’s problem.

The Opposing Viewpoint

Finally, you might be in a situation like a meeting, where you’ve presented your position, you’re well prepared and your ideas are backed up with facts, but you meet with opposition from someone else in the room.  Maintain the distinction between who you are and what you’re talking about.  Don’t interpret even an outright attack on your ideas as an attack on you personally.  Yes, I agree, this can be a real challenge, but you’ll never lose by keeping the high ground.  Stand your ground, but keep an open mind and a firm hold on your feelings.  Stay polite, impersonal and calm.  If the other person has a bad attitude, let it be about them, not about you.

I read a delightful and memorable saying in a novel once, “Never be upset about rude people.  They’re the ones being rude, not you.”

The short answer to the question, “How do you handle someone who is negative?” is – you don’t.  You handle yourself.  Then you’ll be able to handle the situation appropriately and wisely.

A Half Hour That Could Change Your Life


A Half Hour That Could Change Your Life

Who needs public speaking training?  Everyone!  Because everybody speaks, including you.  Whether it’s at work or in your personal life, you need to communicate and be understood.

Do you know how to change your perspective, turn “butterflies” into welcome helpers and never feel fear to speak in public again? Do you know how to make such a strong connection with your audience that they love to listen to you?  Do you know how to engage your listener’s attention and hold it throughout your presentation?

Find out – at my free WEBINAR – SPEAK UP! How to Talk So People Listen.  Have you registered yet?  Click here to see the introductory page.  Enjoy the short video.  That’s the opening segment of the DVD in my SPEAK UP! Training Program.

After that, click on CLICK HERE for the REGISTRATION FORM.

On the REGISTRATION FORM, you’ll see I’m presenting this webinar numerous times.  There are four dates to choose from with two times on each day.  Pick one for the half-hour webinar that could change your life.  Why?  Because no matter what you do, you’ll do it more effectively when you present your ideas with understanding and skill.

Do yourself a favour.  It’s free!  All it costs you is half an hour.  You’ll hear tips and ideas that will instantly enhance your presenting style.  Start yourself on the path to speaking with greater confidence, charisma and audience connection.


From 322 BCE to 2012 – the Ancient Greeks Were Right

In the days of Demosthenes, a famous orator of Ancient Greece, people put a high value on the ability to speak well in public. Throughout the centuries to our present day, the people who have moved us, motivated us and changed the course of history were great speakers. Today, in our digital, text-obsessed world, those who speak confidently and effectively stand out from the crowd. More than ever, we need people who speak well – not just with good grammar and clear diction, but who engage and connect with their listeners.

Everybody speaks.

Nowadays, few of us have occasion to give speeches in a Greek amphitheatre, but we do all speak. We speak from podiums and pulpits, in classrooms and boardrooms, raising funds and raising awareness. Everybody speaks.

Speaking in public is both an art and a skill. To excel, you need training and practice. I’ve been onstage since early childhood, as a pianist and singer, more recently as an actress.  As an adult, I took training to transpose those abilities to the field of public speaking. I’ve spent a lifetime learning and mastering the art and skill of performing and public speaking.  But it doesn’t have to take you a lifetime!

A training program that works!

For nearly four years, I’ve been developing and testing a self-study training program called SPEAK UP! How to Talk So People Listen.  As a lifelong performer, I know that great stage presence and polish start with inner assurance and self confidence.  The SPEAK UP! program has it all – how to banish stage fright and manage “butterflies” (if I did it, you can do it!) and how to present in an engaging, effective and memorable way.

Free Webinar! Please join me!

On November 8, 13, 15 and 19, I’m launching my program with a free webinar.  Many webinars are extended product pitches, but not this one. I’ll be speaking directly to you on camera, sharing valuable insights on how you can instantly improve your presenting style.  Whether you’re a seasoned speaker or new to presenting, you won’t want to miss this webinar. You’ll increase your knowledge, your understanding and your expertise.

Register for the webinar by clicking here.

If you click through to the Registration page, you’ll see the four dates available, with two times for each day. I hope one of those fits your schedule.

Those ancient Greeks were right. Good public speaking has always been important, and never more so than right now. Please join me for my webinar. Let me help you become the speaker you were born to be.

Register for the webinar now. Click here.

Self Confidence versus Arrogance

“You cannot perform in a manner that is inconsistent with the way you see yourself.”  Zig Ziglar, corporate trainer and motivational speaker

This quote stood out to me as another way of stating one of my favourite themes: “Whatever is going on inside shows on the outside.”  This is why presentation skills training must focus on more than just the “do’s” and “don’ts” of outer behaviour.  Outer behaviour is Step Two in the journey to becoming an effective speaker.

Step One

The wise traveller knows you can’t skip Step One and have a successful journey.  Step One is self management, finding an inner core of assurance from which you reach out and connect with others.  If you try to reach out without that basis, what can you offer that isn’t hollow, an act, indeed, a sham?  You can only give from what you have.  To give value, you must be giving from confidence in your own value.


I’ve mentioned before that I like to watch Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer, on National Geographic TV.  Why do I love this man?  Maybe because he’s constantly talking about my two favourite topics: energy and intention.  Calm, assertive energy and clear intention are as effective in connecting with an audience as they are in training a dog.

I was thinking about Cesar’s work with dogs, and it occurred to me that here is a supremely self confident person, yet he hasn’t a trace – at least from what we can see on his TV program – of arrogance.  Then I thought, “I wonder if one of the stumbling blocks to developing self confidence is that people confuse it with arrogance.”  It got me thinking about the difference between self confidence and arrogance. Maybe we can clear up some of the confusion if we look closely at those two attributes.  Let’s use Cesar Milan as an example and a role model.

Arrogance puts down; self confidence lifts up.

What is arrogance?  Well, it isn’t pretty.  An arrogant person displays an attitude that he or she is better than others.  It strikes me that arrogance is the mark of a small, frightened person who is extremely concerned with how he or she looks in the eyes of the world.  This person needs to appear better than others – more important, more intelligent, more spiritual, more anything.  It’s unpleasant to be around an arrogant person. By definition, arrogance is disrespectful.  Vaunting oneself up is the opposite side of putting others down.  An arrogant person doesn’t realize that you can’t raise yourself up by putting other people down.

Self confidence, on the other hand, never needs to put others down.  It looks for ways to build others up.  While Cesar sometimes pokes a little fun at owners’ inappropriate behaviour toward their dogs, he always does so in a context of guiding the owner to a higher quality of calm, assertive energy.  He makes it clear that the dog needs the owner to show self confidence – and the real thing, too, not just an act.  Cesar isn’t the slightest bit concerned about how he looks, but is totally focused on drawing leadership qualities from the owner.  The self confident person offers empowerment, not disempowerment.  Cesar’s self confidence is delightful to behold.  It shines from him like a light to guide the people he trains.


Cesar is absolutely convinced of the value of what he does.   Surely as presenters, we speak because it gives something worthwhile, something of value to others.  We seek to make other people’s lives better in some way.  Doesn’t it follow that a person who does something of value is valuable in the doing of it?  Shouldn’t giving value to others be a source of self pride and self confidence?

When examined carefully, arrogance and self confidence show themselves to be complete opposites!  How could we ever have mistaken one for the other?  Why, self confidence is downright beautiful!  It’s a gift to those around us.  If we’re interested in giving value to others – and it can be as simple as a kind word, a smile or arriving on time – then we can be confident of our own value in the giving of it.

When we’re confident of our own worth – self confident – we perform at our best.  Whatever is going on inside shows on the outside.

Getting Your Subconscious to Cooperate

Things get done because people work together.  The better people communicate, the better they get along, and the more effectively they work together.  We need to know how to communicate, how to talk with one another.

The Problem

When it comes to talking to more than one person, though, many people have a problem.  The problem ranges from discomfort (“I can do it, but I wish I didn’t have to”) to terror (“I’ll do anything to avoid speaking in public!”)  For these people, the problem is not the act of speaking to a group.  The problem is what’s going on inside their head.

In my last article, Your Subconscious Matters, I wrote, “Speakers must have their own feelings – their inner self – in a cooperative state…if your unconscious brain is not on board it will sabotage your performance every time…whatever is going on inside will show on the outside.”

By definition, we’re not conscious of what’s in our subconscious.  How can we change it if we don’t know what’s in there?    How can we get an uncooperative subconscious on board?

Perceptions = Assumptions = Feelings

The subconscious mind speaks the language of feelings, not conceptual thought.  It gives instructions to the conscious mind according to how it feels about this or that issue.  Our feelings are the end result of our perceptions.  Those perceptions generate assumptions about the world around us and the people we meet.  Our assumptions become the lens through which we see everything, including ourselves.  Without realizing it, we assume people and situations to be a certain way, or that they should be a certain way.  When something doesn’t fit into the box of our assumption, we have negative feelings about it.  If we assume that speaking to a group is a threatening situation, we will have negative feelings about doing so.  If we assume we are vulnerable to the criticism of others (even a little bit!) we will have negative feelings about our audience.  If we assume ourselves to be inadequate or unworthy to speak, we will have negative feelings about ourselves.

There’s no such thing as a positive result from a negative journey.  If we have negative feelings, we will not have a positive experience or achieve a positive result.  Somehow, we have to do something about those negative feelings.  In my own experience, I was able to change my feelings by examining and changing my assumptions.  When I changed my assumptions, my perceptions changed.  A changed perception – a new perspective – changed my feelings, which changed my experience.

Shining a light on assumptions

It’s my belief that you have to know where you are before you can get from there to where you want to go.  I think we need to know what our assumptions are, but examining them can be difficult since we’re often unaware of them.  That’s where writing things down can help bring them to light.  If you have negative feelings about speaking, which part of it, exactly, do those feelings relate to?  What have you assumed?  Get specific.  Let’s say that you assume your audience will be critical and judgmental of you.  Now ask yourself if that assumption is accurate.  Can you name people who always have a critical attitude toward the speaker?   Maybe you can, but is it only one person, or is everybody you know like that?  Are you like that?  Do you think that’s a productive attitude to have?  Can you give dates and times when their critical attitude resulted in disaster for the speaker?   Is your assumption factually accurate, or is it based in an inaccurate perception?

Perception is a choice.

Now, perception is something we can intentionally change.  We choose what view we take.  We can choose to have a fearful, victimized perception that focuses on negatives – our own and those of others – or a compassionate, generous perception that focuses on positives.  Sometimes we need help to do so – I did – but it can be done.

If you do seek the assistance of a trainer or counsellor, I have one caveat.  Don’t get caught in “yeah, buts”, arguing for your limitations.  The only person a coach cannot help is someone who greets every suggested solution with a reason why it won’t work.  Stay open.  Look closely.  Give new ideas a chance.  Your subconscious is more cooperative than you think.

Your Subconscious Matters

“We are not thinking machines that feel; rather, we are feeling machines that think.”  Antonio Damasio, Neuroscientist

Conventional wisdom used to be that rational, conscious thinking organized our life.  The conscious part of the brain sat up there at the top of our head like a mini-manager, logically guiding us through our days and our decisions.  Advances in neuroscience over the past couple of decades show that this old view is completely wrong.  Yes, the conscious brain manages and initiates our actions, but it does so based on instructions from the part of our brain that operates below conscious awareness, our emotions and instincts.  That goes for all of us, not just so-called “emotional types” – analytical, left-brain types, too.  Our feelings make the first decisions, and our conscious brain follows out their orders, often by rationalizing those feeling impulses.

This new knowledge has huge implications for speakers in any setting, large or small.  If we wish to be effective and understood, we must pay attention to the emotional effect we are having on our listeners.

Emotional effect

If you have penetrating questions to ask, or have serious or negative news to convey, you need to do it in a way that doesn’t make your listeners feel they are under attack.  No matter whom you’re talking to – your employees, your spouse or your children – if your listeners feel they are being pinned to the wall, their conscious brain will be unable to cooperate with you, even if it wants to.  Why?  Because the unconscious part of their brain has activated all their protective mechanisms, one of which is refusing access to the rational, thinking brain.  It’s much easier to bring your listener’s emotions into agreement when you have good news or an inspiring topic.  When the news is not great is when real speaking skill is required.  The wise speaker uses eye contact, facial expression, body language and tone of voice to create harmony, not threat.

Your inner self affects your speaking.

OK, that’s about the audience.  What do these discoveries in neuroscience mean to you, the speaker?  Why does it matter for you to know that you are a “feeling machine that thinks”?  Because your feelings will dominate your outer expression no matter how hard you try to the contrary.  Have you ever seen someone smile but their eyes were sad or frightened?  That’s the power of the subconscious at work.

Speakers must have their own feelings – their inner self – in a cooperative state in order to inspire cooperation from their audience.  No matter how many skills of eye contact, body language and voice production you learn, if your unconscious brain is not on board it will sabotage your performance every time.  That’s why speaking training programs must include instruction on managing the speaker’s inner state.  Self management is Step One.  You can’t leapfrog over it, because whatever is going on inside will show on the outside.

SPEAK UP! Training Program – coming soon!

For the past year I’ve been consolidating the lessons I’ve learned and mastered over a lifetime of performing into a personal training program called SPEAK UP! How to Talk So People Listen.  You don’t have to travel or take time off work to attend this course.  It comes to you, both as a digital download and as a hard copy package, and you fit it into your schedule as you see fit.  You will learn, first of all, how to manage your own inner state – your attitude, your perspective and your butterflies.  As a performer, I know first-hand how crippling stage fright can be, and I show you how a change in viewpoint enables you to leave it behind.  The second half of the program is about skilful outer expression, how to create the stage presence that engages an audience and keeps them with you.  The program has it all – inner and outer!

In a couple of weeks (the date is still to be finalized) I will broadcast a free webinar to launch the SPEAK UP! Training Program.  This will be no half-hour infomercial.  I will be speaking to you on camera, offering valuable, useful instruction – well worth your time, whether you’re looking for a public speaking training program or not.  I’m excited to invite you to visit to learn more about the webinar and the SPEAK UP! Personal Training Program.

As soon as we have a specific date, you’ll be able to register for the webinar at  We’ve been sharing Tips on Talking for three years now.  I can hardly wait to speak to you in person.  Stay tuned!

Habit Words

Recently, I worked with a client who frequently says “um”.  We all say it now and then, but it was so prominent in this client’s speaking that it reduced the power and impact, and even the sense of authority of the speaker.  I also know a couple of people who say, “Okay?” after every sentence or two, as if they constantly need reassurance that the listener agrees or approves of them.  Maybe they are just ensuring their listener is following, but the over-use of “Okay?” makes speakers sound unsure.

Speaking is a conscious act.  To be effective, we need to be conscious of what we are saying.  If we use a word or phrase so much that it becomes an unconscious habit, it makes a poor impression on the listener, lessening the effectiveness of our speaking.

Here’s another look at “habit words” with an article I wrote some time ago.

Eliminate “Um” and “Ah” from your Speaking

A friend of mine is an English teacher. He has a good command of the language, but it’s painful to listen to him give instructions. Why? Because after every couple of phrases he utters a prolonged “Aaaah” while he thinks of what to say next. It’s as if he took a knife and slashed across the fabric of his ideas every few seconds. Do you do that, too? It’s a common habit, but you can break it if you want.

Overworking your listener’s brain

We seem to have an unconscious feeling that we must fill every second with sound, that if we stop talking we will lose our listeners’ attention. In fact, the very opposite is true. Your listener’s brain is processing every sound you make. When you fill your speaking with “um” and “ah” (or any speech “dysfluency”) you interject a sound that is foreign to your train of thought. You force your listener’s brain to take a split second to process this non-word and reject it as meaningless. If you do this every few seconds, your listener’s brain is see-sawing back and forth, processing what your ARE saying and what you are NOT saying. From the listener’s point of view, it’s exhausting!  If the habit is serious enough, the speaker looks unskilled and unintelligent, at best. Even ridiculous, at worst! Not only does the speaker sound unsure of him or herself, but the listeners end up focusing on the “ums” instead of listening to what the speaker is seeking to convey.

Pauses are a good thing.

Pauses, short silences, are crucial to good speaking. They give your audience time to digest what you have just said, and they also add a moment of dramatic tension. Without the interjection of a meaningless sound, the listener’s mind stays focused on what is being said. Indeed his/her attention is intensified in that second of expectation about what is coming next.

If you look up some of the great speakers of the twentieth century on YouTube, you will hear every one of them using short pauses. Listen to Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Margaret Thatcher. Not one of them says “um” or “ah” when they need a moment to think. Yet they all do occasionally search their mind for just the right word. Those little pauses not only help their audience’s comprehension, but also give them time to think.

Changing the habit

What can you do to change the “um/ah” habit? The first step is to start listening to yourself as your audience hears you. We all say “ah” now and then. How often do you say it? Does the frequency vary with the circumstances? Awareness is power. If you can hear it, you can change it.

For a presentation, carefully think through what you plan to say, and then practice it.  When you’re sure of what you’re saying, you’re less likely to be tempted to fill a short “thinking moment” with sound.  Try to catch yourself before you say “um”. Simply stop talking while you think. Intentionally take a breath. At first it will take courage to allow silence to reign, even for a second. Gradually you will find that your listeners do not “tune out” when you pause. They tune IN!

Don’t be hard on yourself if you find the “um” habit challenging to change. After all, if you’ve been using this meaningless filler all your life, you can’t expect to eliminate it immediately. If you can remember to work on it even once in a day, that’s progress. The payoff is big, however, so you will be motivated to keep at it. Your listeners will be more attentive, you will speak more proficiently and you will find that your own thinking process is more focused.

Combine the power of awareness with the power of intention to change, and you can move mountains. You can stop asking your audience’s brain to multi-task with frequent “ums” and “ahs”. You can keep their attention on what you are saying by giving them ONLY what you are saying!