Answering a Question? Pauses are Golden
Here’s a familiar scenario for many of you: someone important is asking you a question. It’s a tough question, but one in your wheelhouse. Like most people, you need a split-second to quickly organize your response. The question is, how do you, as a presenter, handle that moment in a professional and engaging way?
We’ve seen quite a few question/answer sessions in the public domain recently, particularly coming from the presidential debates and congressional investigations—and from the wall-to-wall media coverage of those events. More than ever, we continue to hear and see people turn to non-words—meaningless words—to fill space until they can begin to respond.
Non-words are problematic. If your own goals include being perceived as persuasive, competent, and memorable, we recommend you continue your crusade to eliminate these meaningless words from your presentations.
By now, most of our clients and regular readers are aware of the problem using Ummm or Uhhh to fill an empty space. But there are many other non-words that we’ve heard people use (you know?) when preparing to answer questions, and they are equally as problematic.
The issue is that these non-words come disguised as actual words. They look and sound like acceptable words, but they have no meaning. They do nothing to help you get your message across. Instead, they convey to your audience that you haven’t yet figured out what you’re going to say.
“And” and “So.” Many make this worse by lengthening these words to fill up even more space, as in “aaaaaand” or “sooooooo.”
“Look.” This seems to be a favorite among politicians, especially former and current presidents. Be particularly careful with this one, since it can also sound condescending.
“Basically,” “essentially,” “primarily,” and “apparently.” We often hear these “-LY” words repeated over and over out of pure habit, but they hardly ever add to or embellish the intended meaning of the speaker’s remarks. Leave them at home!
So what DO you say when you need a quick moment to think?
NOTHING! Silence is golden. Pause, take your time, and then make all your words count.
Why is this a big deal? Think of it this way: meaningless words give audiences excuses to tune out, look at their phones or think about their next meeting. If your job is to engage them, as it is for most presenters we know, then you are literally doing the opposite every time you use a meaningless filler.
The next time someone asks you a question, look them in the eye, smile or nod if appropriate, and take the silent moment you need. Your listeners will wait, and will eagerly await every word of your amazing response!