I never thought I would say this, but I learned how to stop saying “Ah” and “Um” while waiting in line for a Subway sandwich.
Quick background: I’ve been public speaking for years. I was student body president in college, which required me to talk in front of student groups as well as the college’s Board of Trustees. I gave speeches throughout grad school on my way to earning an M.B.A. I even led large trainings in past jobs.
Through every public speaking experience, I tried to eliminate my troublesome stammer — with limited success.
Then one day, I was in line for a sandwich, and I realized my problem.
As I got to the Subway counter, the “sandwich artist” asked me for my order. I’m not a Subway virgin, so I have my order on lockdown: six-inch sweet onion chicken teriyaki on honey oat bread. But my mouth failed me as I began my answer with a painful stammer: “Ahhh…umm….yeah, I’ll have a six-inch sweet onion chicken teriyaki…on honey oat bread.”
While ordering a sandwich — far away from any podium, PowerPoint slide, or microphone — my stammer still held power over me. I had no reason to be stressed or anxious in that Subway line. The stammer was a gut reaction, a programmed response.
In that moment, I realized my problem: “Ah” and “Um” were my “thinking words.” They were the words I said when I didn’t know what else to say…when my brain was in first gear and my mouth was in third gear.
My stammering wasn’t a public speaking problem. It was a gut reaction problem. It was a default word choice problem. It was a pre-programmed response problem.
I hypothesized that if I could overwrite my default response, I would instantly become more articulate. And that eloquence would carry over into the classroom and the boardroom.
I remembered the wise words of my friend Brandon from grad school. Brandon had been a television sportscaster, and he was one of the few people I ever met who could talk for thirty minutes without uttering a single “Um.”
Brandon’s secret? Fill the pauses and dead spaces with silence — not with “thinking words.”
After my Subway experience, I set out on a mission to reprogram my default response. Every fast food line, Starbucks order, or question from a colleague became a chance for me to respond with a brief pause of silence rather than filling the void with an “Ah” or “Um.”
A few months later, I had virtually eliminated the filler words, and my hypothesis proved true: I had become a better public speaker. I could now speak to large crowds of people without stammering.
I gave three work trainings this past week, and someone came up to me afterward to say they didn’t hear me stammer once in my trainings. I’m still a work in progress, but I’ve eliminated my thinking words.
Sure, I still screw up sometimes. I still need to remind myself of the Subway line and my friend Brandon’s advice. But I’ve reprogrammed my default.
What’s your default response? Do you need to do a little reprogramming?