If you’ve read my previous article on executive presence, you’ll know my stance on the topic: it’s about authenticity and the ability to hold an audience’s attention. This is true regardless of your personality, social style, or background. However, I referenced that there is another 20% that goes into executive presence. Let’s take a look at one of the major components that comprise what I call the “micro areas” to improve within your communication and presence.
Pausing elevates every speaking style. It’s as simple as that. And yet it’s one of the hardest things to change within our communication. Why? Because we’re never taught to do it (unless you’ve been through significant speech or theatrical training at some point).
So instead, we’ve developed our speech patterns over years and years by adapting to what others around us do. Fast and slow speakers–it doesn’t matter–can both benefit from pausing more often. I’ve coached thousands of people in communication skills workshops around the world and the power of pausing is consistently one of the top takeaways for people. So let’s break this down and see if you’re able to add this technique to your own authentic communication style.
You might be asking yourself, “where should I pause?” Let’s start there. Within our speaking, pauses should reside in two main places.
The first is anywhere that a punctuation mark would belong if our words were written and not spoken.
Think about that for a second. If you’re reading out loud, you’d probably pause briefly for commas, pause a bit longer for periods, and longer yet for new paragraphs. So it’s fairly straightforward where we should pause. But make no mistake–I’m not advocating for some type of robotic perfection within our speaking where we pause in every one of these instances. Rather, the idea behind this is to show you a somewhat simple roadmap for pausing that most of us can visualize.
The second place where pauses should reside is any place where you currently use filler words.
That’s right–the places you currently say “um” or “uh” are usually where we’d have punctuation if our words were written (or in some cases it’s where we’re thinking of what to say next). In either case, a pause is better.
OK, great. Now what do I do?
If you’re looking to improve your pausing, and I recommend that anyone looking to improve as a communicator should have this as a goal, start by recording yourself for 60 seconds. Ask yourself a random question and answer it for a minute while recording yourself on your phone. Watch the footage back and notice two things:
- Which filler words are you currently using? Look for the obvious “um” and “uh,” but also look for “like,” “so,” “you know” or anything else that fills what would otherwise be a nice pause. Write down what you’re hearing.
- In what scenarios do you use filler words? The majority of us use filler words in a few common patterns. One is at the start of a statement. Check back and see if you started your recording with a filler word. This happens in meetings all the time! Watch for it tomorrow. Next is when we’re thinking about what to say next. Pause instead. It usually comes across as thoughtful and not as “this person doesn’t know what they’re saying.” Trust me. And lastly, any place where you’d use punctuation as we covered above.
Now that you’ve got this baseline information about your communication, here is the next step.
Make a goal for yourself to pause more often when you speak in meetings or whenever you’re presenting. And if you’re looking for a harder challenge, try pausing more often in your casual conversations (bonus if you remove a filler word in the process).
It’s going to feel strange and even awkward at times. That’s OK. It’s a necessary part of growth in this area.
Make incremental improvements on pausing. It doesn’t need to be a wholesale change overnight (and besides, that’s unlikely to happen anyway). Try one pause–small or large–during your next update in a meeting. See how it feels to you. Ask someone for feedback about it. They might not even notice that you tried it (typically people that aren’t communication coaches don’t overtly notice micro details of your speaking). That’s fine however, because what we’re aiming for is an improvement around your general communication that blends with your authentic style and voice. And if they do notice it, even better.
Keep at it and continue to experiment.
Lastly, remember that your audience needs these small breaks to stay connected to your communication. Even very clear and polished speakers that forget to pause can lose an audience!