Whether you’re talking to your peers or presenting to a packed room, scientific studies show that you should harness the power of pauses.
“So, what you see here is, um, well, um, it’s our revenue projection.”
“You know, there are opportunities to, you know, do even, um, more for our attendees.”
“Have you ever thought to yourself that, like, maybe we’ve been missing the mark?”
Any of those sound vaguely familiar? Many professionals — including the author of this article — regularly use filler words when speaking to an audience. Noah Zandan, CEO and co-founder of Quantified Communications, refers to these phrases as crutch words. “These [terms] may give us a moment to collect our thoughts before we press on, and in some cases, they may be useful indicators that the audience should pay attention to what comes next,” Zandan wrote in a recent Harvard Business Review article. “But when we start to overuse them, they become crutches that diminish our credibility and distract from our message.”
So what’s the solution? It’s not talking faster or determining replacement words to put in those gaps. Instead, it involves no extra work at all. You simply need to pause. However, Zandan highlighted that many of us fail to leverage the power of pausing. “Great public speakers often pause for two to three seconds or even longer,” Zandan wrote. “Our phonetic data [from an analysis of more than 4,000 spoken communication samples] shows that the average speaker only uses 3.5 pauses per minute, and that’s not enough.”
Of course, pausing can make us feel awkward. Think of those times in school when a teacher called on you for the answer, and you were silent. It felt like you didn’t know the answer, right? We’ve carried those feelings of discomfort with us into adulthood. Even a short pause can feel like an eternity — especially when a room full of eyeballs is staring at you as you’re clicking through slides on a PowerPoint or articulating your vision for a new investment for your organization.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Recognizing the need for more dramatic pauses is the first step to improving your public speaking skills, but it’s easy to forget to let some occasional air fill the room once you’re in front of the audience. To make meaningful changes to your speaking habits, you’ll need to do what your parents, coaches, and teachers always told you to do: Practice. I dug into Quantified Communications tips and discovered that practicing for public speaking requires a lot more than running through your speech in the mirror a few times. In fact, the company recommends one hour of preparation for every minute of performance. That next 30-minute presentation? Gearing up for it should take 30 hours.
That kind of time commitment may seem a bit overwhelming, but Zandan backed it up with an example from everyone’s favorite speaking sessions: TED. Zandan spoke on the main stage in Vancouver at TED2016, and he spotlighted that every speaker took every word very seriously. “Behind closed doors in the speaker’s green room, even Al Gore was practicing like crazy, debating every word with his on-site communications team and refining his delivery right up to Go Time,” Zandan wrote in a post after the experience.
So start pausing, and start practicing. Perhaps those ingredients will even take you from presenting to your board to presenting to a room full of visionaries at TED. Looking for a good place to rehearse? Since your significant other may not want to hear your presentation countless times, check out this virtual reality app.