Be a Master of Pause

By Katja van Koten

“Um.. for our next um… session we ah.. are gonna look at these ah.. words, you sometimes kinda use in sentences when you speak. And ah.. these words don’t really make sense, ya know? They’re really kinda stopping the flow of what you kinda say, ya know? It’s um basically.. distracting for the ah audience, ya know.”

Who has ever been in this situation? You prepared your presentation meticulously. You know what you want to say, and then this happens? “Woah, what was I just saying there? That wasn’t what I was suppose to say? okay okay, relax, focus…” . All the while you stumble through what you were planning to say, talking an hundred miles an hour.

It’s isn’t what you are saying, it’s how you say it. You used a lot of ‘fillers’, with that I mean filler sounds, filler words and filler phrases.

All three variations of fillers are used in that one sentence above. Can you spot them? The filler sounds were the infamous ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’.  The filler words were ‘really’, ‘kinda’ and ‘basically’. And finally the filler phrase, it was just one small one; ’ya know’.

Fillers do not add anything to a presentation. They can even confuse an audience, and unsettle the speaker. So why do we do it?

As a result of our nerves we often speak too fast. That’s when we use fillers. What happens is it that our brain is trying to catch up with what we say. The time it takes us to process what we say leaves a gap, a space in our speech, and we try to fill that space. And the reason we fill the space is that we think we need to keep on talking to keep the attention of the audience.

Now that’s an important point, we think we need to keep on talking for the audience. While we forget that the audience also needs to process what we say. Realising that will not only help us eliminating the fillers we use. It will also add something powerful to our public speaking toolbox.

That is the power of the pause. It’s one of the most powerful tools you can use in your public speaking. It enables your audience to process what you’ve been saying, to make your point. It also makes you calmer and more confident as a speaker. I believe everyone can be a master of pause.

First we need to know where we can put a pause in a presentation. One way to practice this is to look at the plethora of speeches out there and see if you can spot the pauses. A lovely example is this speech:

This was a very short speech given at a TED conference in 2011 by Ric Elias. He was one of the passengers of the flight 1549, who landed on the Hudson River in 2009. Here is an excerpt from that speech:

Imagine a big explosion as you climb through 3,000 ft. Imagine a plane full of smoke. Imagine an engine going clack, clack, clack. It sounds scary. Well, I had a unique seat that day. I was sitting in 1D. […] Two minutes later, three things happened at the same time. The pilot lines up the plane with the Hudson River. That’s usually not the route. He turns off the engines. Now, imagine being in a plane with no sound. And then he says three words. The most unemotional three words I’ve ever heard. He says, “Brace for impact.” I didn’t have to talk to the flight attendant anymore. I could see in her eyes, it was terror. Life was over. 

Can you spot the pauses?

There are quite a few pauses. In the excerpt alone we can add pauses for various reasons. We can add a pause if we want to emphasise something. Like right after “Brace for impact.” – to let the words really land (pun intended!).

We can use a pause before a punchline so that’s actually before “Brace for impact.”.

Or we can use a dramatic pause. For instance right after “I was sitting in 1D.”.

We can really play with these pauses and in the process of doing so, eliminate the fillers.

Once we know where to put our pauses we can practice it. To practice this for your own presentations you might want to consider this. When you first try using pauses, say in your head ‘period’ in the place of the pause (please only in your head). This way you get used to the pause, and even get comfortable with it, until you eventually begin to master it.

So next time your brain is trying to catch up with what you say, and you feel the fillers coming up fast, remember to pause. Not just for you, but certainly also for your audience.

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  1. Pausing’s such a powerful technique – so simple, yet not easy at first!

    I’m not sure that speaking quickly’s often to blame, though. There are plenty of very hesitant speakers who use lots of fillers. So I’d say it’s more about being unsure what to say next – no matter what speed you’re speaking at.

    Anyway, you might be interested in my post about speaking quickly. Any comments (or links) are always welcome.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Craig for your response.
      There is definitely not one right answer here, and being unsure (or very self aware) is certainly another reason why we use filler words.
      In the process of being unsure we then tend to speak too fast, which can lead to filler words. What I try to convey is that we speak too fast to fill the gap of the ‘awkward’ silence.
      If you are naturally a fast speaker, then that’s actually your strength and you should use it, using the tips you give in your article (plus adding a little pause here and there), so thank you for sharing your article.


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