by Steve Adubato, PhD

One of the most common and avoidable mistakes people make when they communicate or present to an audience is the use of fillers or non-words. It starts with the “uhms” and “ahs” but also includes words like “basically” or “you know,” when none of these expressions are necessary or useful.

Why do we “fill” our communication with these counterproductive expressions that only serve to undermine our message? Much of it has to do with getting into the habit of filling the air with sound. Most of us are really uncomfortable with silence. We incorrectly believe or assume that our audience expects or wants us to keep talking even when we are not really sure what we are saying. Obviously, that makes no sense.

Most of us were never really taught in required public speaking classes how powerful a tool PAUSING can be. Think of pausing as verbal “white space.” It’s like a newspaper or magazine advertisement. If the ad has too many words all crammed together, the message can become blurred. Yet, fewer words in bolder type with white space in between often communicates a crisper message. This visual image is an important one when teaching people why pausing is so effective.

What is interesting is that you can’t simply say I am going to practice not saying “uhm” or “ah.” It just doesn’t work. This will only make you more self conscious, which could turn you into an unnatural and awkward presenter. The trick is to consciously replace fillers with pauses.

Let’s consider some of the more tangible benefits pausing offers when making a presentation.

  • Pausing gives an audience time to reflect on what is being said. It allows people to paint a mental and an emotional picture of your words. People retain only a small percentage of what we communicate, therefore, isn’t it best to share less and let it sink in more?
  • Pausing can create anticipation, particularly when it comes to story telling. Consider this; “The key to America’s health care problem rests on one simple solution—PAUSE 2-3 seconds—What we need to do is…” Instead of rushing through without a pause, give your audience a chance to get ready for your main message.
  • Pausing also can have a calming effect. Consider the words of Franklin Roosevelt at a time in American history where reassurance from the president was essential; “We have nothing to fear…but fear itself.” FDR paused for a couple of seconds before he stated, “…but fear itself.” That dramatic and reassuring pause made all the difference in the world. It underscored that the president truly believed what he was saying and that we, too, could believe in him.
  • Pausing also allows you as a speaker to pace yourself. As you pause, you can listen to your own words and let them sink in. While pausing you can glance down at your speech outline and see a key word, number or phrase and then deliver it with confidence.
  • Finally, pausing can emphasize humor. Consider the late Johnny Carson, who paused or simply said nothing for a few seconds when telling a story or delivering a monologue. During those pauses, Carson also utilized expressive facial gestures to communicate with his audience both in the studio and the millions watching on television.

Purposeful pausing allows the presenter many more options when attempting to connect on a more personal level with others. This only happens when you begin to incorporate it into your presentations. It won’t happen by magic. It takes practice, persistence and ultimately getting comfortable with the sound of silence.