Umm…ready for this year?

By Jean Park

I have always heard mixed sentiments about junior year and when the last day of sophomore year came around, I was already feeling the anxiety. I decided that this summer I would attempt to balance spending time with friends with preparing for a hectic junior year.

Over the summer, I attended the Brady-Johnson Program, which is a leadership development initiative at Yale University. The demanding two-week program required 70 students to read eight thick books before the start of the program, entailed incredibly late nights in stuffy dorm rooms trying to finish a research and presentation project and included daily lectures and seminars on topics ranging from foreign policy to philosophy.

Of all the things I learned in those two weeks, one of the most valuable lessons the program taught me was to never say the word “um.” It seemed like the customary yet often forgotten advice given to novices of public speaking. I have learned that this seemingly trivial piece of advice applies to areas far beyond the realm of public speaking.

At first, skeptical of the validity of this advice, I tried to investigate why I take the time to say “umm.” As I speak, it gives me time to think when I am on the spot. It opens up an opportunity to take a breath and relax before plunging back into a frenzied schedule. I wondered why people have always stressed the importance of skipping that short, yet effective break, which could permit a more fluid process of thoughts and ideas in one’s mind.

I began to pay closer attention to the content of the speaker’s speech. All the professors displayed PowerPoint presentations and successfully crammed a four and a half hour long lecture into a mere two hour block, which included questions.

I began to see that the speakers who paused to say “umm” became distractive. Although I know that these lecturers are without a doubt over-qualified professionals in their areas of expertise, taking the time to sound that involuntary “umm” took away from their credibility. I have ultimately realized that the supposedly inconsequential advice given to us was indeed valid.

I began to see and hear that the speakers who wasted no time to say “umm” were far more dynamic in speech and tone. Also, the professors who refused to pause seemed more confident in their speeches and more knowledgeable to the audience. Of course, everyone eventually has his or her “umm” moments, but even learning to become conscious of those instinctive “umm’s” is a goal reached by few. I admit when I first took a glance at my junior year schedule, opened my heavy box of textbooks and walked back onto the Harvard-Westlake campus for Locker Day, I had that involuntary “umm” moment.

It takes time to adjust to a demanding schedule especially with more work, but now that I look back on the experience, I realize the program was designed to keep us in constant motion. Waking up early for lectures, spending all night attempting to communicate with fellow group members via Google Docs and catching up on reading assignments gave us absolutely no time to physically take a break.

Now I have to keep that piece of advice with me and because there will not be time to take breaks, I will try to remain dynamic for the busy year ahead of me.