Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Should the Ah-Counter at a Toastmasters club meeting make a silly noise each time he hears a filler word?


I don’t think so. But on page 14 of the March 2018 issue of Toastmaster magazine there is an article by Bill Brown, DTM titled An Empty Tradition? (and subtitled Opinions differ on how an Ah-counter should operate). In a Toastmasters club meeting the Ah-Counter’s role is to count and later report on the number of filler words (ah, um, so, etc.) used by each speaker. Bill asked some Toastmasters leaders in different areas how that role was being conducted. He referred to making a silly noise as ‘immediate feedback’ and lamented that instead the ‘final report only’ method was winning.

Bill ended with the following paragraphs:

“Are we truly committed to eliminating filler words, or has our Ah-Counter report become nothing more than an empty tradition? That is a question each club needs to seriously evaluate. Listen closely for ums and ahs at your next club meeting. I mean, really listen – closely. If you don’t like what you hear, you might want to try the bell for one meeting. Painful? Perhaps.

My pain certainly got my attention. As a result, I do hereby pledge once again to eliminate the ums and ahs from my vocabulary. Will you join me in that pledge?”

My response to his question is a firm HELL NO. Eliminating filler words is a fool’s errand, since they are NOT useless. The September 2017 issue of Toastmaster magazine had a better article by Lisa B. Marshall titled Like, um, how do I stop, ya know, using um and ah? She ended with:

“Remember, hesitations in our speech are not just fillers—they have meaning and serve a purpose. In some cases they can improve attention and retention. But if used excessively, they can create negative perceptions. Your goal should be reduction, not elimination. I hope you’ll use these tips for your next speech.”

Sadly Lisa‘s article did not reference the research backing up improved retention. But I did in a February 13, 2014 blog post titled Adding a few ahs and ums improved recall of plot points in stories. I agree that typically filler words should be reduced rather than eliminated. I also think ‘immediate feedback’ is both unsupportive and rude, and thus conflicts with the club mission that:

“We provide a supportive and positive learning experience in which members are empowered to develop communication and leadership skills, resulting in greater self-confidence and personal growth.”

In the January 2009 issue of Toastmaster magazine on pages 14 and 15 there was an article by Eleanor Guderian titled A Little Creativity Goes a Long Way which discussed how:

“A visitor named Bill recently recalled his experience visiting a Toastmasters meeting on a military base 25 years ago – and the rather unique strategy employed by the club’s Ah-Counter. ‘Every ‘ah’ and ‘um’ was punctuated with a BB [a lead pellet] dropped in a Folgers coffee can,’ said Bill. ‘I never went back.’ We assured him that all of us are learning to control our ‘filler’ words by counting them, but we never subject each other to humiliation.”   

For another viewpoint, see Rich Hopkins February 10, 2012 post at his Speak & Deliver blog titled Toastmasters Friday: To click or not to click. However, using a clicker in for immediate negative feedback is BACKWARDS from the usual positive feedback (reinforcement) approach for clicker training of animals. We should not be monkeying around with noisemakers.

Images of a toy monkey with cymbals and clickers came from Wikimedia Commons.


Also see this March 20, 2018 article by Julie Sedivvy at the Nautilus blog titled Your Speech is Packed with Misunderstood, Unconscious Messages

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