Umms and errs – don’t count them!

Why is Toastmasters International wrong about this one?

This is an advertisement in the Toastmasters 2008 Catalog, p.23

Tally Counter
Use this counter to count ah’s in meetings. It features four digits, giant finger ring and easy turn knob. Toastmasters International is imprinted in black on left side.

Four digits!!! – you can count thousands of umms and errs at the one time. Really!! Do you need that many? Wow! you have a real problem. And so does Toastmasters International, because it recommends to Clubs that the standard Agenda should include an Umm and Err Counter.

Does your Toastmasters Agenda have a role for an Umm and Err Counter?

If it does, then I think your club is making a big mistake. Not only is the time wasted which could be better used. It has a significant negative effect.

Focussing on negatives reinforces them

Many decades of research by clinical psychologists have established this. When you focus on a negative, and say, don’t do that! you increase the power of the behaviour in the person. It’s a way of advertising it – repeated statements build up the exposure and make it more likely to be adopted – just as advertisers repeat their slogans many times to enhance brand exposure. Telling children what not to do is a losing parental and teaching method. The best method is to tell them what to do and reward them for doing it.

Our experience at Victoria Quay

When we started the club we were persuaded by one of our founding members, a Clinical and Educational Psychologist, to drop the Umm and Err Counter from our Agendas. After over 13 years of practical experience, we know we did the right thing. Of course some of our members start off with a problem with verbal fillers – not just Umm, Err and Ahh. When that happens, their evaluator tells them of the problem and recommends a better way – use a pause instead of the filler – the magic of silence.

Deal with the problem when it arises

That’s how we deal with the problem. It’s not a big deal. We don’t advertise it, reinforce it, give it the power of repeated exposure. Instead we recommend a successful way of overcoming the problem.

What’s the result with our speakers?

Last Saturday one of our members won the Western Division International final. When the Perpetual Trophy was displayed at the Club on Wednesday night, there were the results from the last 7 years. In 5 of those years one of our members won the Trophy. Excluding the Umm and Err Counter doesn’t seem to have had such a bad effect on our members’ speaking skills.

We use the time better

Instead of 2-3 minutes on this negative role, we have a Highlights role in which a member recapitulates the best things from the meeting – positive things to build up enhanced behaviour.

What about your standard agenda?

Do you waste 2-3 minutes on negative reinforcement each meeting? Or do you deal with the “filler” problem in a positive way when it comes up with a member? How could you use the time better?

What do you think on this matter. Post your comment.


David Nicholas DTM

4 Responses to “Umms and errs – don’t count them!”

  1. Avatar for Bill Hewitt Bill Hewitt says:

    Hi David

    Curtin has an Umm and err counter and it been beneficial to members who have a tendency to use too many filler words. This has occurred both when they undertake the role and/or receive feedback. The club is an environment to learn. We use the CRC and we recommend just as VQ Evaluators do, we tell the member the problem and recommend a better way – use a pause instead of the filler – the magic of silence. Whether you have the evaluator or the Umm/Err counter point out an area for improvement, it is an important part of learning to deliver better speeches.

    This view is entirely my own and I am not a Clinical and Educational Psychologist.



  2. Avatar for David Nicholas David Nicholas says:

    Bill, I know that Curtin GSB is an excellent club. I’ve no doubt that your evaluators recommend positive ways to overcome the use of fillers.

    My point is that you can do that without a specific Agenda item. Instead you can use that time for something of a positive valuable. As well, I believe that using the Agenda to focus on negative issues, not only wastes the time used, but also actually reinforces the negative issue and makes it harder to reduce and eliminate.

    Get ready for an opinion on the Agenda role of Grammarian.

  3. Avatar for Martin Lindsay Martin Lindsay says:

    David, I think there is a place for the umm-err counter. It is an easy role to give a visitor or new member to encourage them to participate, It alerts us to our subconcious use of fillers, and it is one of those roles that we love to hate. Have fun with it and use it as a mini-icebreaker.

  4. Avatar for Liz Sheridan Liz Sheridan says:

    Liz Sheridan here from Mandjar,
    I agree with David on this one. I have a keen interest in learning more about the effects of positive /negative re-inforcement (I have 5 grandchildren and 2 more on the way) and am wanting to act more positively with them than I may have done with my own children.
    I much prefer the role of Harkmaster for new people to cut their teeth on. This does allow for positive feedback of the the different items and what was particularly memorable within a presentation. It also keeps all members on their toes and allows the new member an active, more positive role than an umm /ahh counter. As David said, there is an opportunity for umm /aah recommendations within the role of evaluator, should it be deemed neccessary.

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