By Dr John Melville-Jones
Senior Honorary Research Fellow
Classics and Ancient History
As a Very Small Investor in a Very Large Australian Bank, I decided last year to attend an Annual General Meeting. It was not exciting, but I was struck by one thing: what the Chairman, the Chief Financial Officer and some of the other directors said was delivered more professionally than the average academic lecture.
It was not the first time that I had felt that non-academics (including some of our senior administrators who have not been university teachers) often perform better in such circumstances than learned professors (and are not almost all of us professors now?), even though academics might be expected, because they speak before an audience more often, to speak well and clearly.
In fact, however, academics are not always good speakers. We mumble, drop our voices at the ends of words or sentences, avoid looking at the audience and, worst of all, pepper our speech with frequent ‘Umms’ and ‘Ahs’ and ‘Uhs’. Some years ago I became conscious that I occasionally Ummed, so I began training myself out of it. There was no one to help me, because the staff of the Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning remain in their House of Love, far from the scene of action, and do not attend our lectures, so this was an unfunded exercise in personal development.
After more or less succeeding in abolishing my Umms, I became more conscious of the failings of others (like a reformed smoker who rages against the evils of nicotine), and I now regularly use a personal Ummometer to check on what they are doing. The highest score that I have recorded is 170 Umms in 20 minutes. It was achieved by a postgraduate student, who would not count as a full academic yet, but might have ambitions. I am glad to report that he responded well to counselling, and at his next performance, the score during another twenty-minute presentation had been reduced to 19.
Some time ago I attended a meeting of the Faculty of Arts. On this occasion I recorded 49 Umms in 10 minutes from a Winthrop Professor. This might be considered a normal performance. I have not been brave enough to offer counselling to this person.
There are different kinds of Umm. There is the Introductory Umm – the speaker prefaces what is about to be said with a loud UMM or AHM, keeping the audience waiting (it might also be called the Anticipatory or Basic Umm, of which ‘Basically …’ or ‘Well …’ are alternative forms). A variant of this is the even louder Prelusive or Predatory UMM, which is employed when a discussion is in progress, and the Ummer wants to be heard before anyone else (I acknowledge with gratitude the contribution of Dr Patrick O’Sullivan of the University of Canterbury, who suggested the second descriptive term to me). Again, there is the smaller Umm or Uh that recurs at frequent intervals because the speaker is tense (it would be interesting to see the score, if Hansard and others had recorded every Umm or Uh uttered at the time of the last election by the man who aspired to become Australia’s Prime Ummer, although he has now, as his confidence increases, reduced his Umming considerably). Then there is the simple punctuatory Umm or Uhh, placed where one would expect to find a comma or a full stop in a written text. Finally, there is the post-joculatory Umm, which is preceded by an attempt at humour which the speaker realises is not funny, and is followed by a short silence during which no one laughs.
My fellow academics, now that I have drawn this matter to your attention, listen to what your peers do, notice, perhaps even count and classify, their Umms, and try to control your own speech. You have nothing to lose but your Umms.
Published in UWA News, 29 October 2012