by Guest Blogger H. Flint Ranney
Whatever has become of good public speaking?
Do schools even bother to teach it any more?
Watch a White House press briefing, visitors speaking at a Board of
Selectmen meeting, or some other event where speech is extemporaneous. Look
at the TV news panels where talking heads are analyzing the latest events.
Observe how some speakers, without a written text or a Teleprompter in front
of them, have difficulty avoiding what might be called thought-spacers, also
known as discourse particles: “um” and “uh.” In jolly olde England, these
sound like “em” or “erm.” Too often we also add meaningless utterances such
as “you know,” “I mean,” and “like.”
Maddeningly, some speakers will respond to a question by starting right out
by saying “I mean,” or “You know” before saying anything else. Then the next
minute or two will be filled with so many “you knows” that it’s hard to
count them. Try it. It’s not always a spaced out “you know,” but often a
barely noticeable “ya know” prefacing and attached to, another word.
The thing is, until something has actually been said, or an opinion
presented, we DON’T know. Throwing your shoe at the TV will not reduce your
frustration level if you are even paying attention to the twaddle. Count the
number of “uhs” and “ums” in a one-minute period, even in a single sentence,
and you’ll be surprised. These have probably become the most popular
“non-lexical vocals” in the English language, cluttering some 20 percent or
more of our unrehearsed speech, public or otherwise.
How has this happened to us? Maybe it is because we are all so busy and our
brains so disordered with an overload of miscellaneous information that we
can’t just utter words in a continuous intelligible flow. We have to pause
and think of what to say next, and embarrassed by “dead air,” as they say in
broadcasting, we add fillers to keep listeners from interrupting us. Or
maybe we have just lost our train of thought for a few seconds.
Schools seem to be too occupied with programs on diversity and preventing
student loss of self esteem (no grades given out because it’s unfair for
someone to get an A unless everyone gets an A), that teachers probably
cannot find time to encourage kids to speak in cohesive sentences.
Ah, yes, and there are some people who can talk, and talk, and talk, even
entire paragraphs, without a single speech disfluency. One might observe
that these luminaries tend to be older, wiser, and may have a natural public
But ever an optimist, I’m like hoping that public speaking will improve
over, um, time, if, I mean, you know, uh, the public learns, ya know how.