Why is it that even some of the most confident public speakers punctuate their speech with recurrent series of ‘er’s, making them sound like drivers trying to reignite their stalled engines? Like any annoying mannerism, it can be distracting for the audience and, if you sense this habit creeping into your public speaking, I recommend you train yourself out of it.
When brain and mouth get out of synchrony, it causes a glitch in the system. Until this is repaired, the speaker is stuck repeating the same pronoun or article – or, if none is available, the filling noise ‘er’. It’s the principle of the broken record.
Ideally, obviously, we would all be so well prepared and focused that we would never find ourselves groping for the right way to express our ideas. But sometimes it happens: we can momentarily lose our thread or, when responding to a question, for example, we may need a few seconds to consider what we want to say.
In order to prevent glitches, the best advice I can give you is to slow down. This is usually the biggest single factor that my clients find boosts both their ability and their confidence in public speaking. As I must have said on this blog many times before, slowing down is win-win: it’s easier for the audience to take in what you’re saying and it’s easier for you to deliver because it gives you time to think.
Beyond slowing down, remember you don’t have to embark upon a sentence until you’re ready. In daily life, the main purpose of saying ‘er’ and ‘um’ is to buy ourselves time for reflection, while making it clear we still have the floor and nobody else may speak yet. One of the joys of public speaking is that we don’t have to worry about this. If we’re making the speech, if we’re giving the presentation, if we’re answering the question, the audience will wait while we assemble our thoughts. During the time it takes us to do so, rather than filling the space with the sound of our brain whirring, the least distracting and most effective solution is to stay silent. These few seconds may seem a long time to us at the front but to the audience it’s a welcome breathing space – if they even notice we’ve stopped.