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Audible Pauses: Lessons from a Sunday Afternoon Press Conference

Audible Pauses: Lessons from a Sunday Afternoon Press Conference

I had a to write a blog post about the firing of the University of Nebraska’s football coach Bo Pelini.

But the topic may surprise you. This blog has one message – in this world of 140 character posts where grammar and punctuation often are ignored or overlooked, good verbal communication skills still matter.

Mere minutes after the press conference of Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst ended on Sunday afternoon, three of my friends, independently of one another, offered the same observation – the AD’s announcement of Coach Pelini’s termination suffered from too many audible pauses. These are the seemingly insignificant “ums” and “ahs” many of us utter when we are between thoughts during an oral presentation.

Instead of stopping ourselves from making a sound, we fill the silent space with an “um” or an “ah.” Falling into the same category as audible pauses are what I call throwaway words or expressions such as “kind of” and “frankly.” Most of us – if we really pay attention to our use of language – can find these in our conversational habits. Yes, I too am guilty as charged!

Why are these little utterances or throwaway words so significant? Because they steal the power from your message. Instead of listening to your words, your audience is distracted by an annoying pattern.

I recall in my college organic chemistry class, my lab partner would count how many times our professor would say “um” or “ah” during the period. The tally was usually in the hundreds. This is an extreme example, but it demonstrates how these can distract your audience from your message.

In all fairness to Mr. Eichorst, I listened to the press conference in its entirety and I give him credit for having and delivering a consistent message. I thought he handled questions well, and it was obvious that he was prepared for the types of questions the journalists threw at him. He earns an A+ for having distinct messages, delivering them consistently and successfully deflecting those questions he didn’t want to address.

But clearly his delivery was a distraction. It could simply be that Mr. Eichorst – who the media have dubbed the “Invisible Man” or “Silent Shawn” – doesn’t necessarily have a lot of practice making public presentations. Or it could be that he isn’t even aware of this habit.

But there is certainly hope for Mr. Eichorst and the rest of us who suffer from similar verbal patterns. We can rid our language of audible pauses and throwaway words with two simple steps: 1) recognition and 2) practice.

First we must recognize the habits that are weakening our delivery. Toastmasters is an excellent, safe forum to identify speech patterns that are stealing the power from your words.

Once you become aware of these patterns, as you practice your presentations, you will begin to catch yourself and edit these detractors from your diction. It doesn’t happen overnight; it is something you must work at over time. But the effort is worth it because you want your audience hanging on your every word, not making hash marks to tally up every time you say “um” or “ah.”