Paul Graham consistently says ‘um’ ~7 times per minute

We just got back from demoing our tech at PyCon 2012, which was a blast. We didn’t make it to see many talks because we spent almost all our time in the expo hall showing and telling. This expo/conference balance sucks a bit, so I wanted to catch up on some of the talks. I started with watching the video of Paul Graham discussing seven frighteningly ambitious startup ideas. (essay, pycon video, youtube) It’s a great talk, go check it out!

"Boy, this is a lot bigger than the last PyCon I talked at... um..."

Within the first couple of minutes, I noticed that Paul was using so-called disfluencies such as “um” quite often. I wondered if he was a little nervous, but that didn’t seem likely for someone in his position. Was he going to get more comfortable later? Hard to know because I’d tune out the disfluencies as I listened so I couldn’t trust myself to notice the trend. To answer this silly question for myself, I decided I’d measure the occurrences of “um” and “uh” while I watched.

I whipped up a quick script to help me log this data and, of course, send it to Metricfire (via the HTTP API) so I can get a pretty graph.

Here’s what I found:

The X axis time labels do not match the talk video times, but when I happened to watch the video and log the datapoints.

During the main part of PG’s 32 minute talk, (excluding questions) it looks like he said “um” and “uh” just under 225 times. 224, to be exact. This isn’t very interesting in itself, but the consistent rate indicates that he probably wasn’t very nervous and that this is just his presentation style.

There are some small wobbles – the rate levelled off a bit when he was talking about killing Hollywood because this is clearly an issue he has given some thought to before. I suppose his thoughts were more organised on that topic and we see fewer disfluencies as a result. This is a logical and unsurprising conclusion, but it is interesting to see this visually in the data.

224 “um”s over 32 minutes is about 7 times per minute. How does this compare with other talks PG has given, and with other speakers? Do I use as many disfluencies? I don’t know. The next time I watch a PG talk I’ll repeat the experiment, and I’d be interested to see similar analysis done on other speakers and myself.

This isn’t exactly the high volume of backend application performance data Metricfire is intended to capture, but it was fun to think about. :)

- Charlie

Updated 12th March 13:35 PST: Adding Youtube video link because the PyCon video link isn’t working.

Updated 18th March 11:40 PST: Paul Graham writes about speaking skills.

17 thoughts on “Paul Graham consistently says ‘um’ ~7 times per minute

  1. i believe that technically, and possibly even medically, this is considered a speech impediment.

  2. Paul Graham can get away with this because he’s Paul Graham. Everyone knows who he is, and enough people view him to be a credible authority that his career is not meaningfully harmed by his lack of public speaking skill.

    You, the entrepreneurs who found this via HN, are not Paul Graham. Most of your audience consists of people who do not know you, and who (like it or not) will start assessing your confidence and credibility nearly instantly. You will be doing yourself an enormous disservice if you speak as poorly as pg.

    Imagine if you will, what his speech would’ve sounded like if he’d simply taken a short breath or a pause in place of each ummm… wouldn’t he have sounded more confident? more credible? more capable?

    You spend enormous energy on your company. You owe it to yourself to learn to stop using filler sounds.

  3. You should make your logo clickable, I really don’t know why that is an issue for me but it is. Stubborn as I am I will now leave your site…..

  4. there was something decidedly odd about how he did it, at least in the first minute or so that i watched… it sounded like he was taking a break to say “humm” and it had a particular global falling pitch as opposed to how I usually recognise “um” which is more monotonous.

  5. It’s likely not from nerves as he has the exact same presenting style when he’s in front of the founders at Y Combinator. It’s just his way of presenting since he doesn’t really practice the presentation just runs with notes.

  6. He was probably tired and losing concentration or something. And reading, too. That’s what happens then.

  7. i had to turn off that video after 2mins because of this annoying uhm
    luckily he blogged about it

    • Same, i really wanted to watch it as well, but couldn’t get past the “ums”.
      So i’m just going to read the essay he said it will be.

  8. I stopped watching the video around 150 ‘ums’. One more ‘um’ and something bad could have happened.

  9. I noticed that too. He is such a great speaker besides this little quirk. After a while it got hard to focus on the actual speech unfortunately.

    I wonder if he could get rid of it, if he received a little electrical shock every time he says it. Now that would be an interesting talk. :)