40 Mellifluous Ums and Ahs

This presentation was filmed at TEDxGreatPacificGarbagePatch:

This speech by Van Jones provides a good example of a good speaker with a few areas for improvement.

On the positive side, Mr.Jones has a rich and mellifluous (mellifluous: having a smooth, rich flow) speaking voice, with great projection.  He speaks with ease to his audience with a friendly voice and manner.

However, in the first four minutes of his presentation, he voices 40 verbal fillers – ums or ahs.  Some of them are barely noticeable, and some are strung together and quite distracting.  One should always seek to replace verbal fillers with silence.  Pauses are a speaker’s friend; in addition to not being distracting as are fillers they give the audience time to absorb what is being said.  In the same vein, Van Jones does not pause between sentences, rushing from one to the next.  That is sometimes a symptom of nervousness, or more likely in this case, often a sign that the speaker feels rushed to fit his content into the allotted time.  There again, the audience benefits from a pause.

It is worth observing the speaker’s use of his note cards.  The notes themselves are quite large and distracting, preventing him from using both of his hands in gestures.  It is worthy of note that the speaker never refers to his notes at all; as far as we can tell they are there primarily as a security blanket.  He could have dispensed with them altogether.

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The 12 faces of Jim

Variety is the spice of life, and also of a good presentation. In many ways, mixing things up in your speech maintains audience interest and provides you with tools to underline the key points of your speech.

  • A speaker utilizing vocal variety spares us the numbing chose of listening to a droning monotone voice.
  • A change in the pace of your speech helps emphasize your points.
  • Moving around physically helps connect you with your audience.
  • Letting loose with a variety of  facial expressions makes you more human.

As an example, see the photos below of Jim as he presents an idea to a local TED audience. His passion practically jumps off the screen at you.  His expressive physical gestures might seem overstated to you seeing them here.  However, he was addressing an audience of hundreds in a large hall, and Jim’s gestures properly expanded to meet your environment.







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Be Effective

Every speaker seeks to sway their audience to action in some way. Effectiveness at reaching that goal requires a combination of appropriate and concise content, good organization, and smooth delivery.

What does “effective” look like?  In  essence,  it means minimizing anything within your content or delivery that serve as distractions from your message, while at the same time amplifying those attributes that contribute to or  strengthen the intended result of your talk.


  • Nervous mannerisms
  • Verbal fillers (ahs and ums)
  • Complex charts
  • Fast talking
  • Rambling content
  • Shortness of breath
  • Monotone voice

Strong points

  • Good eye contact
  • Judicious use of pauses
  • Clear organization
  • Vocal variety
  • Useful supporting graphics
  • Conversational manner

To the extent that you limit the characteristics on the first list and embrace those on the second, your connection with the audience will happen in a much deeper way.  And not coincidentally, you will enjoy giving a speech much more.

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Humor from a philosopher/builder

Recorded at TEDxHouston, June, 2010

Dan Phillips demonstrates in this talk how effectively a speaker can use humor to connect with the audience. This is one of the more amusing speeches about home building you will ever see.  He also incorporates an unusual use of his visual aids, using is photos at first to illustrate his points as he makes them, then beginning a slide show that runs as a background to his remarks, but not referring to them as they scroll through.

Being extremely knowledgeable about their subject, speakers must take care to avoid using jargon or complex ideas that fly over the heads of the listeners.  Dan seemed to violate this rule at about the 5:05 mark in this talk as he says, “Humans have a need for maintaining consistency of the apperceptive mass.”  But he immediately translates that into plain English.  Extra credit is due for his expanding our vocabulary while using a new term perfectly in context.

The question is often raised as to what the proper attire is for a presentation. The short answer is that it is largely context-dependent.  Dan’s casual clothing was of a piece with his homespun speaking style and the self-effacing humor which fills his speech.

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Be Comfortable

Relaxed-speaker            Apple cider 015              Marsha Wallace

A comfortable speaker relaxes the audience and makes them more receptive. This comfort flows from your confidence in your message and in your ability to deliver it, both of which can be learned.

Why do so many people struggle with nerves when speaking? Perhaps it dates from an unfortunate bad experience back in school, or stems from a fear of embarrassment or humiliation if  the speech does not go well. Unfortunately, the traits of an uncomfortable speaker present distractions from the message being delivered.

We all recognize the signs of nerves – the wringing hands, shortness of breath, rushed pacing, and uneven or nonexistent eye contact all serve to put audience members on edge.  Tension is contagious, and rather than absorbing the message they anxiously await the end of your speech.  Truly, the best reason to be comfortable as a speaker is that it leads to the audience being comfortable.

Their are a variety of physical and psychological techniques to lessen stage fright, many of which can be       coached and learned.  But far more effective than those in combating nervousness is having a targeted, well-written, and well-prepared presentation when you reach the stage and step up to the microphone. With confidence in your message and in your ability to present it clearly, fear and nervousness are set aside as an issue.

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