Imagine you’re caught in rush-hour traffic. You flip the radio onto a news station just in time to catch a politician babbling about his assorted observations. While trying to structure his thoughts, he gets stuck on a single word, and bumps against it repeatedly like an old vinyl record. Through your speakers, you hear something like this: “And that is why, in terms of the-the-the-the-the-the…”
If you’re anything like me, this is the point where you do grievous and irreparable harm to your radio console. I’ve gone through three in the last few months, and am now successfully installed in an anger management class.
There are many variations on this annoying vocal habit. Some speakers will um and ah. Others will substitute meaningless words, such as ‘like,’ ‘actually,’ and ‘you know,’ where they have no place.
All of these variations are doing the same thing. Two things, actually: first, they are needlessly filling up a space where a good, profound pause should be. Second, they are annoying your listeners down to their very tree-sap.
The psychology behind this vocal noise is actually very simple. As we reach a juncture in a thought or sentence, we beginto think about what we want to say next. While doing so, we have the options of either keeping quiet, or, if we’re nervous, continuing to engage our vocal chords and producing nothing of any value whatsoever.
Clarity and discipline.
Pause fillers not only sound unprofessional, but they actually make us appear nervous (at best) and even untrustworthy, like someone who is scrabbling to make up a story on the spot.
Overcoming this bad habit requires two things of us. The first is clarity of thought in advance. In other words, know what you plan to say. And the second is on-the-spot discipline as we deliver our thoughts.
International speech and drama coaches Jeanette and Roy Henderson suggest the following handy technique for ridding yourself of pause fillers: ‘Every time you hear someone say ‘Ya know,’ you should mentally add the tag, ‘Yeah I do know, so why are you telling me?’ Eventually the tag will become such a habit that you will be unable to use these filler words yourself without your brain adding the tag and, sooner or later, you will cut down or, ideally, eliminate their use.’
My own suggestion for overcoming pause fillers is to use an audio recorder (the feature on your cellphone will suffice). Speak your way through five or six consecutive sentences, and concentrate on the pacing. When you are unsure of what to say next, simply pause. When the thought has crystallised, deliver it.
Practice makes perfect.
As with all aspects of speaking, there is no substitute for practice. You might want to consider joining a local Toastmasters club, or simply concentrating on using pauses consciously wheneveryou present at work. Whatever you do, go easy on your listeners’ minds and ears. A person who structures and fluently delivers his thoughts is always taken more seriously. The lectern is no place for a stuck record.