One of the communication skills Toastmasters teaches is to eliminate verbal pauses when speaking, whether giving a speech, talking on the phone, or having a face-to-face conversation.
Verbal pauses are when you say um, ah, uh, you know, etc. While your brain is searching for the next words to say, your mouth keeps on going and blurts out meaningless extra syllables.
Verbal pauses also include bridge words like and, but, and so. If you say one of these words and hang on it before you actually know what you’re going to say next, it’s a bridge word.
Another form of verbal pause is the repeated word. You keep repeating your last word until you figure out what to say next, like and and and.
One of the meeting roles in Toastmasters is the Ah Counter. The person who fills this role changes every week, and his/her job is to count the verbal pauses of everyone who speaks during the meeting and then to tell each of us how we did at the end of the meeting.
This is incredibly eye-opening.
When I first started in Toastmasters, I might have 10-20 verbal pauses during a meeting. Now I’ve got it down in the 0-2 range. Some veteran Toastmasters members have gotten good enough that it’s rare they’ll ever have a verbal pause. But some new members are challenged to commit less than 10 verbal pauses per minute of speaking.
The simplest replacement for a verbal pause is a silent pause. When your brain stops feeding intelligible words to your mouth, stop talking. Don’t say um, ah, y’know, sooooo, etc. If you’re addicted to verbal pauses, this may feel uncomfortable at first, but you eventually get used to it. Remember that you don’t have to fill every minute of airtime with noise.
Verbal pauses are distracting in communication. They can make you sound less intelligent and clear. They muddle your message. Verbal pauses are simply noise, not communication. You don’t need them, and your communication will be more effective once you eliminate them.
The way to eliminate verbal pauses in your communication is two-fold: awareness and practice.
First, start becoming aware of verbal pauses by listening for them in others’ spoken communication. If you watch the news or any non-scripted talk show, listen for verbal pauses in the speakers. It’s amazing how some people will have very few, and others will have many. You might watch something like The Tonight Show and find that Jay Leno has virtually no verbal pauses, while his guests may be afflicted by many ums and ahs.
Even some professional speakers have a serious addiction to verbal pauses. I remember the last time I saw Dr. Wayne Dyer speak here in Las Vegas, his 3-hour speech was loaded with literally hundreds of ums and ahs. I have an audio recording of his speech, and he had about 10 of them just in his first minute on stage. While his message was very powerful, I found his excessive verbal pauses distracting. Verbal pauses infect all his audio programs I’ve ever heard as well.
The next time you speak, even if it’s simply in a conversation with coworkers and friends, ask someone to listen for your verbal pauses and to count them. Then at the end of your communication, ask them how you did. You may not even be aware of how this bad habit affects your communication.
Once you gain an awareness of where you stand, practice to eliminate verbal pauses. Listen to yourself speak and notice when you blurt out that um, ah, or double-and. Have someone else observe you periodically (even if just to watch you speak in a conversation or on a phone call) to see if you’re improving.
With awareness and practice you can eliminate this bad habit and improve the clarity of your, uh, verbal communication.