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Like, um, can you break those bad, you know, speech habits?

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This is, like, an article about, ah, all those, um, bad habits we have when we talk to people about, you know, whatever. Know what I mean?

I wanna say no.

You would think we're paid by the word, meaningless or not. Those little fillers come in so handy when we're casting about for a legitimate word or thought, and pretty soon they become conversational tics. We don't hear ourselves using them, but the person on the listening side may hear nothing else.

"The 'um' just drives me nuts, and 'you know,' " said Judy Ennis, who does a lot of public speaking in her job as executive dean at Owens Community College in Findlay. She said she's been known to interject, "No, I don't know" when she's talking with a serial "you know" offender, and to become so distracted by a speaker's "um's" that she starts to count them. "And then I lose track of their speech," she said.

"I think it's nothing more than habit. I think people are often unaware they're doing it," Ms. Ennis noted. She doesn't think there's anything wrong with pointing it out to them, in a nice way. If she's critiquing a speech, for example, she might comment on how motivational it was, or how impressive the research, but that the message was obscured by the "um" clutter.

"I think you could do the same thing with a colleague or friend," she said.

Or we could make a date with the "Ah Master." The job goes by various names within Toastmasters - the international organization in which people help each other become better speakers - but that's what the Westgate chapter calls the member who is assigned the job of listening to a colleague's presentation and reporting afterwards on overworked words, phrases, and fillers.

"We seldom listen to ourselves, so we don't know what the pattern might be," said Kim Welter, a member of Westgate Toastmasters and a former English teacher who is now the executive director of EqualityToledo. Her own battles are with "and, um" and "but, um."

Once you identify your habitual filler, the obvious but deceptively simple solution is to be aware of your speech and stop talking when your old friend is about to slip in. Allow a moment of silence to occur, Ms. Welter advised.

That moment can be torture. Will people think you've forgotten what you were going to say, or that you can't retrieve the name or word you need in order to move on? Will they think you're done and that it's their turn to jump in?

"That silence is a struggle for me," Ms. Welter admitted.

Ms. Ennis uses the same tactic to avoid the "um" that annoys her so much as a listener. "When I find myself starting to do it, I just kind of pause and start with the next sentence."

That also works for Mark Abramson, an attorney with Robison Curphey & O'Connell who teaches part-time at the University of Toledo law school and does presentations on retirement planning. Former president of the Westgate Toastmasters, he suggested listening to a tape of yourself to discover your favorite crutches.

"There may not be any 'ums' or those kinds of fillers, but you may be saying a word over and over again. I found that I said 'basically' close to 15 times to explain what I had just said. Once you are aware of this habit, you simply need to stop, pause for a moment, and then clamp your mouth shut before you let one escape."

So. Can we blame this on society, or someone else, rather than on ourselves? Uh, possibly.

Ms. Welter said speech patterns are established when we're very young, so "I suspect it's passed on."

We also tend to pick up speech habits from peers or entertainers we're trying to emulate. "Once they become a habit, it's like smoking - you do it to fit into the crowd and then you can't get rid of it," she observed.

Kevin Olmstead, an environmental engineer in Ann Arbor and spokesman for the Toastmasters district that includes northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, blames television, particular broadcasters. "Every millisecond of air has to be filled with something," he declared. If it's not scripted speech, background music, laugh tracks, or applause, it "uhs."

Mr. Olmstead - a Toledo native who said he joined Toastmasters after he found instant fame five years ago as a $2.18 million winner on the TV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? - points out that you can sound nervous or tentative when you're breaking up a statement with fillers.

He offers this example: "We're going to hunt down Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice, dead or alive!"

And: "We're going to, ah, hunt down Osama bin Laden, and, um, bring him to justice, uh, dead or alive."

"The second one sounds hesitant and unsure," Mr. Olmstead continued.

Think about that the next time you're out on a first date, asking the boss for a raise, or interviewing for a job.

"We should think before we speak," wrote Kelly White, a 16-year-old junior at St. Ursula Academy, in an article in this month's issue of The Ursuline, the school newspaper. Kelly, of Sylvania Township, focused on overuse of the word "like."

Using it incorrectly makes the speaker sound "foolish or immature," she pointed out.

In the article and later in a phone interview, Kelly admitted she's guilty of the "like" habit - both the usual filler form and as a substitute for the word "said."

She's like, "I'm super-conscious about it now. Everyone says it, so it's hard to stop."

But she said she's trying to break the habit, and in closing her article she encouraged other students to make the effort, too: "It will help to portray us as strong, intelligent women, and not, like, total valley-girls."

It's not just words that we abuse, though. Some people, maybe in a valiant effort to avoid their "um," just make sounds, Mr. Olmstead observed - sort of a "tut-tut-tut," or "tsk-tsk-tsk" with their tongue, or a "dup-dup-dup."

Even people who coach others on avoiding "um" and all its relatives can slip up.

"One that I do is 'all right,'•" confessed Rita Brandeberry, speech and drama teacher at Anthony Wayne High School. "It's usually when I'm explaining something to students and they don't understand it and I have to repeat it."

She catches herself doing it, but says many people - including her students - aren't aware of their particular bad habit, be it "OK," "like," "you know," or something else.

"If it's not pointed out to you, you almost have to listen to yourself," she said.

Mrs. Brandeberry counts the "ums" and "you knows" in the first presentations that her speech students give. "I had one who in a three-minute speech had 53 'ums,' " she said. When she showed the boy the tally, he couldn't believe it. "He said, 'I don't say um.' "

But awareness leads to improvement - "He's down to 22 'ums' in a seven to nine-minute speech," Mrs. Brandeberry reported. "It can be done."

He'll be ready for next quarter's impromptu speeches, when she'll tap a bell after each offense.

Contact Ann Weber at: aweber@theblade.com or 419-724-6126.

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