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On Presenting – Avoiding the Dreaded “Umms”

Have you ever gotten a case of the dreaded “Umms”?

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So, here’s the scene.

You were prepared. Your slides were finished. They looked great, by the way. You had your speaking notes. You practiced them. you were just fine, or so you thought. You started your presentation. It felt a bit rough, but you got into your stride.  You were thankful that it was over. Ruination! Did you have to play back the recording? It was just one “um” after another. There were small “ums”, medium-sized “ums” and drawn-out “ums”. The presentation was a whole platter of “um-bergers.”! “Who would ever want to hear me speak again?”, you say to yourself. Your confidence is shot, certainly your life as a speaker is over.

Jump to scene two. You are worried sick. You sweat for hours before the next presentation, sure that it will be full of the dreaded “umms.” You can almost smell that overloaded plate of “umms”. You are sure that you will sound underconfident, at most kind of stupid.  Squaring your shoulders, you do the presentation, and all goes well. It flows. You feel great.  You remember to shut your mouth and pause. There are few “ums” to disturb the flow. Of course, you don’t listen to the recording, but you know that it will be better. You feel great, the presentation was smooth and well understood. You are a Rockstar! An “umm”-less virtuoso of the presentation mode.

Why were the two presentations so different? Why was one filled with a horrific number of “ums” and the other one so much more satisfying?

Let’s take a step back. What triggered the “umms” in the first presentation? OK, I admit it.  It was my presentation. I was the “ummer”, but why? Whatever came over me? I had done a presentation the day before and I felt good about it. In fact, someone complimented me on my pleasant speaking voice. Thinking back, it all started with the slides. I was given some content and pictures to use, content that didn’t really sound like mine. I had read it through a couple times and was familiar with the content, but I hadn’t put it together. I was not speaking in my own voice. Was that all? No, I was simply off my game. I was using a new virtual platform that seemed quite a bit different, and I just couldn’t figure out how to share my slides. I asked the hosts to share the presentation and to shift the slides as I talked. I was fixated on getting the notes right rather than on how I was coming across.

Viriginia Stanley (age 17) pictures @2020

With the second presentation, I had put together the slides, so I was well familiar with the thinking behind them. As I put each one together, I knew how I wanted to present them and had left them unscripted so that I could adjust as I went along. I used my own voice during the presentation. In addition, having gone through the first presentation with an advanced case of the “umms”, I was more mindful of my “umms” and where they might erupt. Feeling an “um” coming on I resolutely closed my mouth and waited until I knew what I wanted to say. For the audience it was a pause for effect rather than a desperate search for something to say. Finally, I was using a platform that I already knew, so sharing my presentation went smoothly.

So what did I learn about myself and about presenting? Am I now able to avoid those dreadful “umms”? Perhaps not entirely, but now I have a game plan.

I am a big picture thinker and do better at ad lib than carefully scripted speeches. As a typical Boomer, technology can very quickly confuse and upset me. So, what is a game plan that will work for me?

  1. Keep the presentation simple with few speaking notes. I can fill in the blanks as I go along, reacting to questions or bringing in off-the-cuff examples. I need to make my presentation interactive to get the right cues and to be able to speak from the heart.
  2. Become familiar with the platform, so that I can focus on my presentation.
  3. Be mindful of how I am processing what I want to say. I need to cultivate silence until I am ready to say something, using pregnant pauses rather than “ums” or fillers.
  4. Practice, Practice, Practice. Do more presentations.

Will this work for everyone?  Of course not. Each presenter needs to know what works for them. They may need to try something completely different. As I do more presentations, I will need to evaluate if my game plan will help me to avoid thorny problems such as those dreaded “ums”. I know that underneath those thorns, there is a beautiful flower. It is about uncovering it. Here’s to my “um”-less future presentations.

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