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An Empty Tradition?

Opinions differ on how an Ah-Counter should operate.

By Bill Brown, DTM


I was asked to write an article about the various methods clubs use to help members eliminate filler words when speaking. I thought the article would be easy to write. Instead, I found it painful.

The topic actually involves two questions: What methods are clubs using? And how effective are those methods?

Clubs have two basic options when it comes to monitoring filler words (such as “ah” “like” or “um”). The Ah-Counter can (1) provide immediate feedback during a speech (for example, by ringing a bell or pressing a clicker when a filler word is uttered) followed by a verbal report at the end of the meeting detailing each member’s use of fillers or (2) eliminate the use of immediate feedback and verbally relay the observations in the summary report in the meeting wrap-up. When I first became a Toastmaster, I joined three clubs. Two rang a bell whenever a member used a verbal crutch; the third did not. That was 12 years ago. The year 2018 tells a different story.

I asked several Toastmasters leaders in Las Vegas how many of the 80-plus clubs in the area use immediate feedback and I was told that none of them do. Elaine Lung, DTM, in the Silicon Valley in Northern California, is unaware of any clubs nearby that use that method. John Barry, ATM, a 35-year Toastmaster who has started more than 20 clubs, is aware of only three in Founder’s District, Southern California, that employ immediate feedback methods during speeches.

Once in a while, Roxann Andersen, ACG, CL, of Riverside, California, clinks a spoon on a glass when she hears filler words in Table Topics, but her club primarily waits until the final report to share the results. A trophy, however, is presented tongue-in-cheek to the speaker with the most filler words.

Practices might be different where you live, but the “final report only” method seems to be winning the day. Now to that second question: How effective is that method? My “filler word radar” was switched on at my most recent club meeting. I attend an advanced club that includes high-level speakers—Accredited Speakers, DTMs and others. As grammarian, I picked the word of the day. Only three used it. Had I chosen “um,” I would have had near-unanimous usage. Perhaps that final report isn’t working as well as we think.

“I picked the word of the day. Had I chosen ‘um,’ I would have had ¬≠near-unanimous usage.”

Since that time, I have paid close attention to my own words and I’m appalled by how many times during the day I say um. Did I mention that this article was painful to write? When I asked Elaine, the Silicon Valley member, about how she would feel if she heard a bell ring during her speech, her immediate reaction was, “It would rattle me.” Reg Boaler, CTM, CL, from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, views the bell as a distraction to both the speaker and the audience. It can have that effect, but in clubs that use the method I have seen speakers eliminate filler words in less than two months.

John, the member in Southern California, is a longtime member of Saddleback Sunrise Speakers, one of my first clubs. He says “The Triple S,” as the group is called, dings all filler words used in club speeches, and even during the opening invocation. “In my humble experience,” he says, “clubs that actively enforce the use of the bell will find that their members eliminate that pattern of speech.” Does that scare people away? Well, with 36 members, they are one of the largest clubs in Founder’s District.

While my Toastmasters friends may disagree on the best method to use, we all agree on one point: You have to care enough to want to change. John said it takes “a concentrated effort, not only in the meeting, but even when you are talking to your mother.” Reg adds, “You can’t change it if you don’t want to change it.” Roxann, in Riverside, made a sobering point: “When someone doesn’t care, I start to wonder what else they don’t care about, and I start discrediting what they are saying.”

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 to once again eliminate the ums and ahs from my vocab–ulary. Will you join me in that pledge?