25 October 2011

Professional broadcasters should beware of saying "um" and "er"

The previous post on a famous broadcaster who speaks more effectively on television and radio than when he's lecturing (Melvyn Bragg) reminded me that there are also some professional broadcasters who punctuate their reports and interviews with rather more "ums" and "ers" than they should.

Someone I've noticed doing this is Adam Boulton, political editor of Sky News. On turning to YouTube for possible examples, even I was surprised that I had to look no further than the very first clip I came across (above), in which you'll hear 37 "ums" and "ers" in 150 seconds - at a rate of about one every 4 seconds.

• Needless noises?
A normal feature of conversational speech is the way we punctuate much of what we say with ums and ers. But, for audiences trying to listen to a speech (or broadcast) this can become a major source of irritation, because presenters who retain their normal conversational umming/erring rate come across as hesitant, lacking in confidence, uncertain of their material and badly prepared.

• Don’t worry – I’ve started
In conversation, one of the commonest places for ums and ers is right at the start of a new speaker’s turn, where we use them to avoid what might otherwise be heard as a potentially embarrassing silence - by indicating: "I'm not being impolite or disagreeable but am about to respond any second now". But some public speakers (and broadcasters) make a habit of starting almost every new sentence with an um or an er, of which they’re typically completely unaware of until they hear themselves on tape - when most are appalled by the negative impact they must have had on their audience.

• Hold on – I haven’t finished yet
Another place where we often um or er in conversation is when we suddenly find ourselves stuck for a word or name we need to be able to carry on. We know that, if we simply stay silent while searching for the word, someone else will use the pause as a chance for them to speak, thereby preventing us from finishing whatever it was we were about to say. So saying um or er is a simple and effective device for letting everyone know that you haven’t finished yet and that it’s still your turn.

• When pause-avoidance loses its point
If the primary functions of ums and ers in conversation are to avoid silences and reduce the chances of being interrupted, they lose their point in presentations and broadcasts. After all, presenters are not competing to hold the floor in the same was as in everyday conversation and, once in full flow, they certainly don't need to keep reminding us that they've just started a new sentence. As a result, umming/erring rates that would be perfectly normal and hardly noticed in everyday conversation stand out as needless distractions when heard from the mouths of presenters.

In defence of Mr Boulton?

In the particular clip above, it could be argued that Adam Boulton's umming/erring reflects his uncertainty in the face of two things that are new to him: (1) the gadget he's showing to the interviewer (and us) and (2) giving a televised

Tomorrow's World style demonstration that's far removed from his natural habitat of political interviewing and reporting.

But the reason I started looking for a video clip of him in the first place was that I'd often noticed (and been surprised by) the frequency of his umming and erring in his regular contributions on Sky News.

Nor, would it appear, am I alone in having done so - as his was one of the names mentioned on Twitter yesterday after I'd invited people to guess the identity of the umming/erring television news presenter about whom I was planning a blog.

P.S. BBC policy on ums & ers?

Long ago, I seem to remember being told that BBC Radio's policy towards editing out ums and
ers had changed over the years and I'd be curious to hear confirmation that this was indeed so (or not). Does anyone know whether that there was a time when all ums and ers were edited out of recorded BBC interviews with inexperienced interviewees as a matter of course, followed by a period when all of them were left in (to ensure greater 'authenticity') and eventually ending up with a 50:50 compromise in which some, but not all, were deleted? Or am I just dreaming?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't recall the BBC policy you mention at the end of this article, but I do remember the Today programme once featuring some research that found people remember more of what comes after the ums and erms than if they are played a speech with them edited out.