The weirdest role at any Toastmasters meeting has to be that of the “um” and “ah” counter. It’s an important job – because speakers tent not to hear their own verbal tics, so it’s valuable to be presented with the evidence of how many “like”- or “you know”-bombs slipped out. But it still feels strange to be the counter, sitting there quietly like a leopard in a eucalyptus tree, waiting to pounce on vulnerability.
At VanCore, the um/ah counter also performs the role of grammarian, which feels a bit more, um, prosocial. You get to beef up everybody’s vocabulary by introducing a new word. And then you listen for how many people are able to use it at the meeting, and how deftly they slip it in.
This week Jesse, a new member, gave one of her first speeches from the Competent Communicator’s Manual. The um/ah counter often feasts on the speeches of newbies. The talks are sometimes so peppered with filler words they sound like what hockey players say to reporters between periods on NHL broadcasts. And by the way, there’s no shame in that. It’s how you learn. The triumph is in the getting up there and going for it.
But Jesse left the counter feeling like a working dog that … had no work. She told of the tradition, among certain West Coast First Nations groups, of ceremonial, long-distance canoe trips. It was an inspiring tale, with quotes from participants and just enough history to give the whole thing ballast. But more to the point, it was linguistically perfect. No um’s, em’s, ah’s, so’s, like’s, ya-know’s. Nothing but net. Beautiful.
The counter was left frozen in place, pencil poised over a blank page. The um’s and ah’s were his currency – and he had nothing. He felt impecunious. Which happened to be the word of the day.
And, oh yeah: Jesse used that, too.