Dulcis Loquela, Dulcis Oratio, or Un-Umming Your Speech

‘If you’ve done your homework you’ll know when one of your credibility killers is just about to escape from your mouth. Then, all you’ll need to do is to keep quiet. I know, easier said than done. At first you’ll have awkward pauses in your speech, but that’s still better, actually far better, than speech peppered with “likes” and “ums.” Eventually the pauses get shorter.’ – Lisa B Marshall in Business Insider
aristotle-and-his-pupil-alexander-everett
I once interned under Sinclair Ferguson, one of the great preachers alive today. In one of the few chances I got to sit down with him and really talk about ministry and preaching, he charged me to eliminate “umm” from my speech. He insisted that in order to get rid of it from my preaching, I would have to get rid of it from my everyday conversation. I worked hard at it, and made a lot of progress.
Lisa B Marshall calls “um” a “disfluency” and a “distraction.”  I think that might be a little harsh. They are natural from a linguistic perspective. As she says, every language has them. And perhaps 20% of our utterances in casual conversation are of this variety.
But it is true that in certain contexts these space-fillers can be “credibility killers.” They call attention to the fact that you’re still trying to form your thoughts, and maybe even your beliefs, on the fly, in your head. On the other hand, the elimination of disfluencies will make it sound like your opinions and beliefs have taken shape over time, and that you are confident in them.
I think the tricky part is, what if you actually are not sure what you think? The reason we give a negative connotation to “rhetoric” these days is because so many people have waffled back and forth, forming their “beliefs” at the drop of a hat to suit the occasion.
It’s important to make sure that one’s public speaking doesn’t project false confidence. The key, as far as I can tell, is to confidently state that we are less than certain about the things we are less than certain about. (See what I did there?)
If I had to guess, I’d say our world contains roughly:
  • 5% smooth talking and successful purveyors of empty rhetoric
  • 15% honest, quite intelligent people with unfortunate rhetorical habits, who utter lots of ummmms and leave a lot of us bored, distracted, or unconvinced
  • 30% people who are blustery, cocky, and who darken counsel with all kinds of crummy ideas and logical fallacies spewed with inarticulate garbling passed off as persuasive speech
  • 40% people who are not likely to try to persuade others, simply because they’re not disposed to leadership

That’s 90%, which leaves 10%, I suppose, who have something valuable to say to people who need to hear it, and can speak with confidence, elegance, and persuasiveness, and who probably don’t distract from the content of their thought by habitually resorting to disfluencies.

My experience, especially during this election cycle, is that the hot-headed 30% are not going to lose their unsavory rhetorical tendencies soon. It seems to be a matter of the heart, and while the heart can change, it usually takes time. I know, because I used to squarely belong in that 30%.

However, I would be difficult to overestimate the difference that could be made in our world if some of the 15%, whose voices we need to hear, would make themselves better-heard. In their case, change can begin to take place immediately. If you’re one of them — part of the 15% that ought to move into the 10% — then start small, but start today. Drop the “umm.” Embrace the silence left in its place. Gather your thoughts but keep your mouth closed while you do it.

Let’s all give up “umm” for Lent.

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3 thoughts on “Dulcis Loquela, Dulcis Oratio, or Un-Umming Your Speech

  1. Pingback: Witnessing because we love | From guestwriters

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