Non-Words vs. Pauses: A Showdown!

There are many sneaky non-words out there that masquerade as ACTUAL WORDS AND PHRASES. They look and act like real words, but usually are used by speakers to bridge from one thought to the next. Read on to learn what to say and what NOT to say.

Over the years of bringing Speaker’s Digest to you, we’ve written often about how we encourage speakers to limit their use of non-words. This is such an important Fundamental because it impacts in so many ways how a speaker is perceived by their audience.

Non-words are bad, folks. They can take an A-level speaker down to a C- in minutes. Don’t let this happen to you!

The challenge is that it’s sometimes difficult to define what constitutes a non-word. Many are easy to spot because they are NOT ACTUAL WORDS. These non-words, typically ummm and uhhhh, can be dealt with. In our workshops, we teach everyone to snap their fingers whenever they hear one of those non-words. Most participants figure out the problem and learn—some more quickly than others—to avoid them.

But there are many sneaky non-words out there that masquerade as ACTUAL WORDS AND PHRASES. They look and act like real words, but usually are used by speakers to bridge from one thought to the next. You know, aaaand, really and basically are particularly offensive examples. We read about an interview given by Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, back when she ran for Senate, in which she said the phrase “you know” 142 times in the course of the interview! Transcribers actually left those words in the official transcript that was shared with the media. (Give it a read here.)

An offender currently used way too much is the word SO. There are multiple problems with this, the most prominent being that it frequently gets expanded to sooooooooooooooooo. It means nothing, and worse yet, it takes up space, usually at the beginning of a sentence. It’s often heard when people answer questions that have been posed by the audience. A question—“How is your policy going to improve access to health care for people in urban areas? Answer: “Sooooooooooo, our policy will improve by…”

Really! Similar responses are used all the time these days.

Care for a Pause?

The message you get from an elongated SO or other non-word is that the person is thinking. That’s fair, it’s OK to think. But it distracts from the message, weakens any point the person is trying to make, and most importantly, it keeps them from pausing, which is one of the most effective things a speaker can do.

Here’s a recent, real-life example. A few weeks ago, just after the horrible nightclub shooting in Orlando, people were weighing in on social media and various news programs. President Obama waited a few days before delivering one of the more intense speeches we have seen him give.

On Tuesday June 14, Obama was angry. He was angry about the shooting, angry about some of the things that other politicians and media had been saying, angry about the lack of gun control, and angry about the tragic loss of life. And he was angry that people were criticizing him and calling him responsible for the shooting.

How did you know he was angry? He raised his voice more than we usually hear, but that wasn’t the only reason. He used an intense, serious tone that helped us understand where he was coming from. He didn’t yell, but he delivered short sentences and thoughts punctuated by long—almost uncomfortably long—pauses. These pauses enabled us to hear and see how serious he was. They punctuated everything he had to say, and helped us process those thoughts before he moved on. He accomplished his objectives for that day—he communicated exactly what he wanted to communicate, emphasized his points in a big way, and in exactly the stern tone that he intended.

These were among the best pauses we have ever heard a presenter use.

President Obama typically does use more than an occasional non-word, mostly when he speaks off the cuff. But imagine if he had, instead of pausing, thrown in a you know, a basically, an ummmmmm, or that dreadful sooooooooo. The intensity of that empty space would have been shattered, and we would have lost the focus on his previous thoughts. His message would have fizzled, and then we would have nothing to write about this month. Obama’s dramatic pauses made the speech exceptional. Click here for some excerpts.

When you’re in front of a group, whether delivering planned remarks or responding to questions, everyone needs a few moments to consider what to say next. Think of pauses like valuable real estate in a perfect location. Filling them up with meaningless phrases or noises is downright wasteful.

Learn the value of pauses. Welcome them into your presentations. Become comfortable with them. Take long breaths. Make great eye connection. Smile. Anything but that awful soooooooooooo.

Eliot M. Shapiro, EMS Communications Co-founder and Principal, is an experienced training facilitator and presentation coach with a passion for public speaking and teaching. For 20+ years, he has helped individuals and teams realize their own potential, sharing his enthusiasm with thousands of people. He lives by the same philosophy he encourages in his clients: you don’t always have to act serious to be taken

Since 1998, EMS Communications has been on a mission to “rid the world of boring presentations, one speaker at a time!” They accomplish this by helping individuals and teams improve their leadership, presentation and communication skills. Their services include private executive coaching, customized corporate workshops and open-to-the-public presentation skills seminars.

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