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Leadership Forum: The dreaded “ums”

February 14, 2022
By Matt Pegg


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I have always been impressed by truly talented speakers, and I recall often feeling envious of those whom I perceived as being “lucky” enough to have this talent. 

The very first time I remember taking an actual class on public speaking and media management was at my first Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs conference, where Karen Gordon, of Gordon Strategy, was teaching leaders from across the North American fire service. What she taught me that day, alongside some important techniques and strategies, was that these are in fact skills that can be learned and honed through practice, coaching and seemingly ruthless critique. 

When I look back on what would become the first of many such courses, lessons and critiques I would participate in, I am reminded of a quote by famous golf professional Gary Player, who calmly remarked one day, “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” Thank you, Karen, for making so many chief officers “luckier” in front of the cameras!

During times of emergency, when fear, emotion and excitement run high, those who take the stage must be able to effectively convey a palpable sense confidence and calm through their words, actions and image. Whether in a staff meeting, public forum or via the media, the reputation of an entire organization is directly influenced and impacted by the leader’s presence and public speaking performance. 

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This month, I would like to share six personal experience-based truths with you that help me feel more confident when I speak publicly: 

  1. Avoiding the dreaded “um”. There are not many things that can derail an otherwise effective and impactful speech, presentation or media scrum faster than a case of the “ums”. In my experience, “um” is what happens when your thoughts outpace your mouth. Stay in the present and don’t allow your thoughts to run ahead of what you are saying, and you will find that the dreaded “ums” will appear much less frequently. 
  2. Know who you are speaking to. All too often, fire service officers try to use the media in order to speak to their crews. The purpose of a media address is to speak to the public we serve. Speak directly to your intended audience and use common, easily understood words instead of industry slang, acronyms and jargon. 
  3. Understand your objective before you step in front of the microphone. During times of emergency, our primary communications objective must be to bring a reassuring sense of calm and confidence to those we serve. Be honest and forthright. Speak to be understood and not simply heard. Be genuine and gracious.
  4. Don’t embellish or dramatize the situation. Your mouth will tend to do strange, involuntary things if you attempt to embellish, stretch the truth or speak of things you don’t actually know. You will get tongue tied, stuck and flustered; the pitch and pace of your voice will increase; you will likely begin to sweat, flush and fidget. All of these are immediately visible to everyone who watches and listens to you, which will be immediately damaging to both your credibility and that of your organization.
  5. “Take a deep breath and go slow.” I put this in quotation marks because I’ve listened to Karen offer these last-minute words of instruction to many people, me included, just before they approach the microphone.  We all speak more quickly when we are nervous, and this is further exacerbated by being on camera. Go slower than you think you need to. In my experience, if it feels unnaturally slow as I am saying it on camera, it likely hits the mark for the viewer.
  6. The lump in your throat. It happens to everyone, especially when speaking at an emotionally charged and particularly tragic event. While there is nothing wrong with leaders displaying emotion, there are times when we prefer to defer that to a later time. If you feel the lump in your throat building, knowing you are about to get emotional, take a slow and quiet yet deep breath through your mouth — breathing through your nose won’t work. A deep breath through your mouth will help to diminish the lump in your throat, allowing you to continue your remarks. 

As we approach the two-year mark in the fight against COVID-19, thank you for all that you continue to do in service to those whom we serve each day.  Lives have been saved as a result of your tireless efforts and I am proud to serve alongside each of you.


Matthew Pegg is the chief with Toronto Fire Services, having previously served in Georgina, Ajax and Brampton, Ont. He is currently the incident commander for Toronto’s COVID-19 response. Contact Matthew at matthew.pegg@toronto.ca and follow him on Twitter at @ChiefPeggTFS.