“Umms” the word: How to improve your oral presentations

UmmmTo some, Facebook is the ultimate distracter during a presentation or lecture. For me, it’s the use of speech disfluencies, especially “pretty much,” “you know,” and “ummm.” Their overuse detracts from a presentation and can give an impression of being unprepared. At the beginning of my dissertation research, I, too, struggled with these filler words. For the sake of my lectures, I had to reassess how I was approaching my PowerPoint presentations. I hope to share some strategies I used to eliminate these words all together.

I was unaware that I used “ummm” during my research presentations until a classmate counted them. The embarrassingly large number prompted me to record my presentation and reflect. I was surprised at what I saw. Typically, I was memorizing the text on my slides for each presentation and could almost recite each slide verbatim. In actuality, it was the wrought memorization that was leading to my use of filler words. At the beginning of each slide, I was trying to recite exactly what I had practiced. The filler words arose while I was trying to recite my lines, much like a nervous actor might do. I stopped memorizing and practicing my slides. Yes, you read correctly. I no longer practice my slides.

Filler words are often used as a stall tactic until your memory kicks in. If you have no predetermined “lines,” then there is no reason to stall and insert an “ummm.” Instead, I now study my presentation material. It reduces my nervousness drastically because I know I am most likely more knowledgeable on my subject topic than anyone in the audience. When I present, I tell a story about my topic, rather than recite facts. It seems more natural and inter-slide transitions flow easily because I am having a friendly conversation with the audience. The bullet points of a slide now act as reminders instead of spoken lines. As a result, it allows for a cleaner and more concise PowerPoint slide, which is easier on your audience. Personally, I find a presenter reading the “wall of text” off just as bad as using disfluencies.

In my reflection, I discovered that silence was something to embrace. Filler words are often used to prevent silence. However, pausing a beat between ideas enables your audience to process what they have heard, while also letting your mind to catch up. It also forces me to speak more slowly. Now, I pause at least three to five seconds before switching to the next slide. Three seconds can seem like an eternity when you are on stage. However, it lets your audience examine your material without the worry of missing your next spoken idea. Personally, those three seconds are when I take a moment to relax and breath, thus reducing my anxiety.

This approach takes time and effort, but the quality of my presentations has increased tremendously. I highly encourage students to record themselves presenting as the first step to improving their lecturing skills.

~Gregory Sabino, Ph.D., Stony Brook ’16, editor-in-chief

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About Gregory Sabino

Gregory Sabino is a fourth year dental student at Stony Brook University. In 2010, he received his Ph. D. in Molecular and Cell Biology with a concentration in Immunology. Prior to attending Stony Brook School of Dental Medicine, he conducted his post-doctoral research in the Department of Periodontology. He is the current 2015 – 2016 National ASDA Editor in Chief.

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