When you listen to a speaker you haven't heard before, do you sometimes feel you can't concentrate on what's being said? Your attention wanders, you squirm in your chair, look at your watch, and start thinking about what you'll have for lunch. What is it that turns you off? Are you just not in the mood to listen? Or is there something the speaker is actually doing that makes it difficult or impossible for you to keep your attention focused on receiving his message?

Most likely it's not your fault. Especially with speakers new at the game, there are a number of unconscious bad habits that all speakers are prey to. Notice that these are unconscious habits. They're things we do or say in everyday speech that, when talking to friends, family, colleagues or salespeople, we might use all the time with no problem. But when we speak in front of a group that is depending on us to tell them something they didn't know before, we have to be aware of the effect of every word we say.

Here's a major unconscious habit that is easy to correct once we're aware of it.

"Thinking 'uhs or ums'"

The speaker comes to the end of a sentence, then tacks on an "uh" before beginning the next sentence. Maybe there's an "um" when she pauses in the middle of a sentence before completing her thought. When moving from one point to another, many speakers say "and, uh..." as transition words. The 'ums and uhs' start at the beginning of the speech and continue until the end. If you counted, you'd find dozens in a 20 minute speech.

What's irritating and distracting about these "uhs and ums" is that it sounds like the speaker has forgotten what he wants to say. Or maybe he can't remember what to say next or has an extremely limited vocabulary. Hearing an "um" at the end of every sentence is definitely annoying! The audience begins to focus on the distracting little words instead of the meat of the speech. The unfortunate result is they tune out the information you really want them to get.

Other similar 'thinking words' to avoid are: "and", "y'know," "right?", "y'see," "yeah" and "okay." You probably know of a few others. They're all words or sounds that we use when we need time to think about what to say next. "Y'know" is a particularly insidious one because often we really aren't aware we're using it, even though we may say 'Y'know' to start or end every sentence! We rationalize it, if we think about it at all, to pretend we're asking the audience if they got what we just said. We're not. It's a thinking device.

What to do instead? Keep quiet! Don't say anything! When you come to the end of the sentence, just pause for a moment. Be silent! Take a deep breath. In that moment, while you're breathing, you can decide what comes next.

Silence is a great tool. It benefits both you and the audience. They get to absorb what you just said, while you think of your next thought, your next point, or your next move. For many of us, we often feel a burning need to keep talking, even if we're not quite sure what to say next. So we substitute all these little thinking devices, "and... um... uh... y'know... right... y'see... okay... yeah," to give ourselves time to think.

Stop it! Use the silence. The audience will wait for you. They'll be grateful for a quiet moment to think about the information you've just given them. The silence is beneficial for both you and them. Watch out for it!