So, Do I, Like, Sound Bad? Practical Tips to Eliminate Verbal Pauses

We all use verbal pauses when we speak: um, ah, like, and you know. Filler words like these become more pronounced during interviews or presentations. Why does this happen, even to the best speakers? In some cases, we’re nervous speaking to an audience. In others, we may be so passionate about the topic that we’re concerned we won’t do it justice. Whatever the reason, our hearts race. We talk faster than normal. And we often use bridge words to hold our place, while we think of the next thing we’re trying to say.

You don’t have to fill every silence with noise. [Photo Credit: Nycholas Benaia]

You don’t have to fill every silence with noise. [Photo Credit: Nycholas Benaia]

 Unfortunately, verbal pauses make us sound less professional at the very time we want to be at our best. Making matters worse, they are also distracting. Instead of your future boss keying in on your skill set, she may be noticing how many filler words you use.

 How can you prune um and ah from your vocabulary? By far, the best solution is to stop talking all together. In other words, use a pause instead of a filler word. You can also try speaking more slowly. Fully finish a thought and then take a deep breath. My point is that you don’t have to fill every silence with noise. Let the power of your idea sink in without further distraction.

 Here are two other ways to break this habit.

 Find an Accountability Partner – Maybe you’ve heard of Toastmasters infamous “Ah-Counter.” That’s someone who tabulates how many times you use verbal pauses. While this method is no doubt embarrassing, it gets right to the core of the problem: self- awareness. We have to recognize how many times we are using um or ah before we can fix the problem. If you don’t want to join Toastmasters, find a supportive accountability partner who can give you candid feedback next time you speak at the office staff meeting. 

 Record Yourself – Most smart phones today have a free mic app. (I often use QuickVoice or VoiceMemos.) Next time you’re giving a short presentation, ask the people in the room if it’s okay to record yourself. Then play back your remarks to see how you did. The next step is to work on trimming these from your vocabulary and, when you’re ready, record yourself again to see whether you’ve improved.

 Awareness and practice are the dual keys to getting rid of ums and ahs. For better or worse, we have dozens of opportunities every day to monitor ourselves: on the phone, talking at dinner, in meetings. Eliminating filler words will, in the end, make you a more confident, powerful speaker.

 Want to read more on this topic? Check out this article in the New York Times, then email me at

One Hundred Beats Per Minute

Three weeks ago, some friends mentioned they’d attended a workshop by Drs. John and Julie Gottman, the famous couples counselors.  I’d heard about the Gottman Institute over the years but was surprised by something they said that night. Basically, that when your heart races, you can’t communicate clearly – or sometimes at all.

What’s the threshold for effective communication? Turns out it’s 100 beats per min. [Photo credit: Daniel Canibano]

What’s the threshold for effective communication? Turns out it’s 100 beats per min. [Photo credit: Daniel Canibano]

I saw a connection to public speaking and did what we all do when we hear something interesting. I googled it. I learned that, according the Gottman’s research, “if your heart rate exceeds 100 beats per minute, you won’t be able to hear what your spouse is trying to tell you no matter how hard you try.”  The Gotmmans call this “flooding,” being overwhelmed by a barrage of emotions, which makes communication with other human beings all but impossible.

As my friends spoke, I realized I’d heard about flooding before: by clients who felt paralyzed by nerves right before a speech. Looking back, I’m guessing their heart rate was likely over 100 beats per minute.

Now, in the world of couple’s counseling, Gottman recommends taking a time out. Nothing good can be achieved when you or your spouse has been flooded by emotions. That’s not an option, however, when you’re about to step onto the stage, take the microphone, and deliver a 20-minute presentation.

My recommendation for speakers is first and above all, to be proactive. In other words, be hyper-aware of how your body is dealing with stress. Are your cheeks flushed? Hands sweaty? Heart racing? If they are, do a quick self-assessment. You can check your Fitbit, Apple Watch, or other tracker. But you don’t need fancy technology – just find a quiet spot to take your pulse. Count your heart beats for ten seconds and multiple the number by 6. This will give you objective data that can serve as a kind of early warning system. If your heart rate is, in fact, creeping up toward 100 beats per minute, it’s time to act.

The next step is figuring out what works for you. Some people benefit by taking a brisk walk around the venue before they speak or working out the morning of the event. This helps them shake off excess nervous energy (cutting down on pacing and verbal pauses like “um,” “like,” or “you know”) Other people use affect labeling to quell their anxieties. This involves naming the emotion that they’re experiencing, which can help take the sting out of it.

But by far, the most effective means I’ve found to calm nerves has been mindful breathing. I wrote about this in one of my first blogs, which you can read here. In short, regulate each breath by inhaling through your nose to a count of 4 and exhaling to a count of 4. Keep it up until you feel more composed. What I love about this process is that it interrupts the sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for high alert “fight or flight” responses. When done correctly, it will help you tap into the parasympathetic nervous system that’s responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” functions. (For a quick overview of both, check out this article.)

In the end, public speaking is about communicating but that’s tough to do when your heart rate surges over 100 beats per minute. So check in with yourself before the next speech. Then use the right techniques to keep your nerves in check and ensure you’re at your best as you walk up to the podium.

How have you managed your fear of public speaking? Let’s talk!  – Rose (

Be Clear Upfront: A Speech Isn't a Mystery Novel

Here’s a 15-second challenge for you. What process is described in the paragraph below? 

Begin by sorting items into piles by color. At the same time, set aside individual pieces that require specialized care. Leave these items until later. Load one pile at a time into the machine, add cleanser, and hit “start.” Now begins the waiting game.

The answer is doing laundry. If you’re like most people, you probably didn’t ‘get it’ until near the end of the paragraph.  

Now, what if I add a new sentence at the beginning?

Doing laundry is easy. Begin by sorting items into piles by color. At the same time, set aside individual pieces that require specialized care. Leave these items until later. Load one pile at a time into the machine, add cleanser, and hit “start.” Now begins the waiting game.

Notice how much easier it is to understand. Not only do you ‘get it’ right away, you know what’ll come after this topic sentence: details to reinforce it.

I came across a paragraph similar to this one when I was a young Captain teaching at the Air Force Academy. And today I still love how it underscores the importance of leading with your main idea. This holds true in both written and spoken communication. (By the way, some folks in the military summarize this idea with “BLUF” or bottom line up front.)

This paragraph also shows us what can happen if, as a speaker, you’re unclear in your intro.  Imagine the audience seated before you. If you fail to mention ‘doing laundry’ upfront, they are probably sitting there trying to figure out what you’re talking about. If you’re lucky, some of them may lean forward and strain to understand you. In most cases, however, folks will simply check out. Their social media feeds and Words with Friends are simply too tempting.

As humans, we need to know the main idea first, the details second. It’s how we’re wired. Just ask John Medina, a bioengineer from the University of Washington. In Brain Rules, he writes, “If you want to get the particulars correct, don’t start with the details. Start with the key ideas and, in hierarchical fashion, form the details around these larger notions.”

This explains why, in part, newspaper articles traditionally begin with a lede that includes key info: who, what, when, where, why. Details follow the opening paragraph in order of their importance. Small nuances that the journalist found fascinating but didn’t really fit into her article? They go at the end. The big, critical details of the story? They go at the beginning so the reader isn’t wondering what the story is about. (This is also why headline writers play a critical role. They’re trying to grab our attention and sell papers.)

Be clear upfront: a speech isn't a mystery novel. [Photo Credit: Chrisin Hume]

Be clear upfront: a speech isn't a mystery novel. [Photo Credit: Chrisin Hume]

In sum, don’t string us along. Don’t make us guess the topic. And don’t think of a speech as a Dan Brown novel.  Avoid this kind of confusion at all costs. It’s a senseless waste of your audience’s energy and tells them you haven’t prepared well enough. Instead tell us in the intro that you’ll be talking about ‘doing laundry’ (or whatever the topic), then enthrall the audience in your remarks that follow.

There are many other tricks like this one to writing a successful intro. Let's chat. Email me at 



Attention Audience

Grab your audience's attention from the get-go & don't let go! [Photo credit: rawpixel]

Grab your audience's attention from the get-go & don't let go! [Photo credit: rawpixel]

Every speech or presentation should start by grabbing the audience’s attention. If you don’t, then you’re speaking to an empty room. You’ve lost your listeners right out of the gate. Here are a few of my favorite ways to get (and keep) their attention:

  • A compelling story. Start with an anecdote or story that will underscore your key message. It might be about a trip to Africa or that chess match you lost in 9th grade. Well-told stories are memorable and create an emotional connection with people. (They also trigger mirror neurons, as I explained in my previous blog.)

  • A moving image. A picture is, in fact, worth a thousand words. Find an image that will draw your listener into your talk. Maybe it’s a family picture of grandma’s garden or a yearbook photo (showing off your 1970s hair style). Or you can download high-resolution photos from sites that offer copyright free images. (I often use Unsplash.)

  • A killer stat. Share a single fact that will shock your audience. For example, you might tell them that 1 in 6 children in America is food insecure, according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. That’s hard to believe in a nation as prosperous as ours, right? That's an outrage ... and now your audience is with you.

Other ways to grab the audience’s attention? Ask an actual or rhetorical question. Use a prop like Bill Gates. When he talks about the Gates Foundation’s work on malaria, he opens a jar of mosquitos. (That definitely wakes people up!)

In the end, find a technique that feels right for you and makes sense given the subject matter. Grab your listener’s attention the moment you start speaking and don’t let go until you’re done.

 Have a big speech coming up & need a compelling intro? Email me at  

The Gettysburg Principle

President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in 1863. Before he spoke, Edward Everett took the stage and pontificated for 2 hours. Does anyone remember what he said? Nope. In contrast, Lincoln’s 2-minute speech has gone down in history as one of the most memorable of all times.

abe lincoln.jpg

That brings me to what speechwriter’s commonly call the Gettysburg Principle: keep it simple. Lincoln’s address is ten sentences long and includes just over 270 words. Of them, 90 percent are one or two syllables. He also used a very simple organizational structure: past, present, and future.

The next time you’re preparing to speak, replace long, complicated words with short, punchy ones. Take a minute to cut phrases that pad the speech unnecessarily. For example, instead of saying, “A large number of,” just say, “many.” Your goal should be to ‘express’ rather than ‘impress.’

What else can we learn from the Gettysburg Principle? Pick an easy-to-follow structure like chronological order, problem/solution, or cause/effect, so your audience can follow your logic easily. And finally, be respectful of other people’s time. However big or small the occasion, speak only as long as you need to get your message across clearly.

Tell me about your last speech. Did the Gettysburg Principle work for you? 

Backwards Planning

Let’s say that an email landed in your inbox asking you to speak at a local conference. Or maybe a colleague left you a voice mail, inviting you to be part of a panel next month.

What’s the first step you should take after saying “yes” to a speaking invitation?

The answer is so basic that you might overlook it – at your peril. I recommend working backwards. In other words, put the event on your calendar of course, but also add two other critical dates.

As soon as you accept a speaking invitation, get it on your calendar -- along with a few other critical dates. [Photo credit: Eric Rothermel]

As soon as you accept a speaking invitation, get it on your calendar -- along with a few other critical dates. [Photo credit: Eric Rothermel]

#1 – Move from What You’re Saying to How You’ll Say It

The first date to add is the day that you’ll stop generating content and start rehearsing the material.  In other words, this is the date when you’ll start figuring out how to share your ideas in a compelling way. It’s usually about 3 to 5 days before the event, but may vary depending on the length of your remarks. 

At that time, start asking yourself questions about delivery. For example, what slides are needed to underscore the main message?  What prop will help your audience “get it?”  How will you tell the story or use the space on the stage? You will likely fine-tune content after this date, but having it on your calendar will give you a clear target: HERE, on this exact day, you’ll make that mighty transition from what you’re going to say to how you’ll say it.

#2 – Set Aside Time to Practice

In addition to this date, I recommend blocking off chunks of time to prep and rehearse. Some folks like to set aside 2 hours at a time; others prefer shorter 30-minute blocks of time. It’s up to you and will depend on how long your presentation is. The important thing is to give yourself enough time so that you feel calm and confident on the day of the big event.

Give yourself the benefit of time by planning backwards from the get go. This will help ensure all the effort you put into crafting the content won’t be wasted. Instead, you’ll have figured out how to share it in a way that’s clear, entertaining, and persuasive.

Interested in more speaking tips? Email me at or follow me on Twitter at @RKing_Portland. Thanks. -- Rose

Eye Contact & Audience Anchors

[Photo Credit: Mark Solarski]

[Photo Credit: Mark Solarski]

Last Saturday, I attended a meeting with local community leaders. The fact that it ran long – over 3 hours – was painful. But what made it particularly difficult was this: most of the speakers didn't talk to me. Or, frankly, anyone else either. Here’s what happened …

I was sitting around a long conference table with about 20 other adults. Plunked in the middle of the table was a box of Starbuck’s coffee. The room was hot. Someone floated copies of the agenda and the first presenter stood up.

He was slim with graying hair. He cleared his throat and began to speak so softly that I leaned forward in my chair. He kept his eyes glued to the paper in his hands. He was so intent on covering what was written there that we, the audience, were superfluous. I sat back, realizing he could have emailed the info out to us with equal effect.

He finished and the second presenter, a woman in a red cardigan, stood up. She was less intent on reading her notes but she glanced up for just one reason: to make eye contact with the person seated across from her. She seemed to genuinely care about the topic, speaking at length and with passion. But her delivery was directed to a single recipient. I glanced around the table. Folks tapped at their phones. Like me, they had checked out.   

Then the third presenter, a 50s-something man with glasses, pushed back from his chair. He began to speak, making eye contact with all of us. He drew us into the material with conviction. The cell phones went away, folks leaned in to the words, and soon enough we were behind his cause.

Eye contact is one of many simple tools you can use to rally an audience. I recommend picking 3 anchor people in the audience located to your far right, far left, and center. (Don't pick someone who's Tweeting or already disengaged.) Instead find someone who is smiling at you or nodding as you speak. Take turns looking at each anchor person while you speak. The other folks (seated between them) will catch your eye automatically. 

Will eye contact alone win converts to your side? Of course not. But failing to see – and therefore connect with – people in the room will lose them every single time. 

Have a question about your next speech? Email me at -- Rose

The Headline Test

Last week I presented at a nonprofit conference in Chicago. The point of my talk was to share time-saving tips with busy communication professionals working on a limited budget. Most were a communications "shop of one." In addition, they wore many hats, serving as the volunteer coordinator, fundraiser, or grant writer. At one point, I asked the audience if they'd heard of the "headline test." Very few had, and yet, it's such a powerful tool.

The Headline Test 

When you read a newspaper, the headline is the main message the editors you want you to remember. It's a concise summary of the article. The same notion applies to your remarks. Before you give the speech, figure out the key idea you want people to remember when you're done. So how do you use the Headline Test and why?

Say that you're giving a speech on summer hunger among children in America. At some point in the remarks, you know you must describe the problem: specifically, millions of low-income kids lack access to reliable, nutritious food in June, July, and August. You also know that you must explain why. The answer: Free and reduced-priced meals (which they receive during the school year) aren't available in the summer. You'll also be hunting down statistics and maybe an anecdote or two. 

But how will you organize your remarks? The headline test can help. It forces you to determine the main idea that you want people to remember. In this example, it might be this: "Summer Hunger Among our Children is Unacceptable." Or maybe it's "Elected Officials Must End Summer Hunger." 

Whatever it is, knowing the headline enables you to work backwards. If you know the Call to Action (i.e., what you're asking folks to do) you can organize the body of your remarks. In other words, you can build a cogent argument -- that gains steam one idea at a time -- so the audience can't help but come to any other conclusion than "We Must Do Something About This Problem Now!" (And, of course, you will spell out exactly what they must do: call their elected official, volunteer at a food bank, or donate grocery items to summer lunch sites, etc.)

It's a "test" because you need to be able to articulate the speech's main message in a clear, concise way. That brings me to the take-away.


You don't aim an arrow in the general vicinity of the target. You shoot for the bullseye. The same concept applies to drafting your remarks. Before you put fingers to the keypad, do the headline test. It'll save you time. It'll help you sharpen your message. It'll help you reach people. Figure out what you want people to remember after the applause fades. If you can't capture it in a few words, your audience won't be able to do so either.

To learn more speaking tips, click here and scroll down to subscribe. Thanks! -- Rose

Just Breathe -- Tips & Tricks of Great Speakers

JUST BREATHE: The Woman in Chair #2

[Photo Credit: Daria Nepriakhina]

[Photo Credit: Daria Nepriakhina]

I recently attended an event at the Lucky Lab, one of my favorite local bars in Portland, OR.  I was there to watch a client that I'm coaching. She was among a group of about ten engineers and architects who were doing PechaKucha (basically presentations of 20 slides @ 20 seconds each).

The first 5 speakers were seated stage right. As the first speaker began, I noticed a well-dressed woman seated in chair #2.  She was the next presenter.  As she waited for her turn to take the stage, she tore up her fingernails one by one. She squirmed in her seat. She swung her legs beneath it.

When the speaker finished, the woman in chair #2 leapt up. She took the mic and began to speak rapid-fire style. She talked so fast that no one could understand her. I didn't time her, but would guess she was covering about 175 to 200 words a minute. That's crazy fast.

I wanted to seek her out after the event to help in some way. Unfortunately she slipped out the door and headed to the bar. My advice would have been pretty simple. Breathe ... just breathe. Doing a few simple exercises before you speak will not only calm the nerves, but ensure you're ticking along at about 125 words a min (about the right pace for most speakers).

Here's what to do when you're in chair #2:

  1. Put both feet on the ground and sit up straight.

  2. Inhale to a count of 4. Exhale to a count of 4. Breathe through your nose.

  3. Repeat.

  4. If this pattern is too easy, try a count of 6 or any of the options listed here.

To be honest, it doesn't really matter which breathing exercise you use. If you know you're extra nervous before speaking, focus on breath beforehand. It will slow down your pace so you can convey your message in a more thoughtful manner. It will also help you master "the pause," a hugely underrated trick that's part of the exceptional speaker's repertoire.

I love this tip because it never fails. To learn more, click here and scroll down to subscribe. Thanks! -- Rose

Hand Gestures -- Tips & Tricks of Great Speakers

What About Hand Gestures?

I get this kind of comment from clients all the time. They say, 'Here's the thing, Rose ... when I keep my hands at my sides, just sort of dangling there, it feels awkward. What the heck should I do with my hands?' Great question. 

Don't adjust your tie or fiddle with your outfit on stage. That says amateur hour. Use the mirror in the green room to ensure you're ready to go! [Photo Credit: Ben Rosett]

Don't adjust your tie or fiddle with your outfit on stage. That says amateur hour. Use the mirror in the green room to ensure you're ready to go! [Photo Credit: Ben Rosett]

Here's what not to do:

1. Jiggle the change in your pocket. Check your pocket for the cell phone -- over and over.
"Is my iPhone there? Yes, there it is.
(10 seconds later) 
Wait, where's my iPhone? Ah, yes. It's there.

2. Stand in "fig leaf" or parade rest (hands clasped in front or behind you).

3. Brush hair out of your face or readjust your glasses repeatedly.

4. Point at the audience. (If you must point, use the politician's solution which is to point with the knuckle of your index finger.)

5. Use jazz hands to convey your enthusiasm.

Well, then, what should you do? My advice is threefold. First, keep hand gestures natural, as if you're having a conversation with a small group of friends. Second, use them purposefully. By that, I mean either list a number (hold up 2 fingers to make your 2nd point) or use them to describe a specific activity or an object (ex: skipping a stone or a watch on your wrist). Finally, use hand gestures inclusively: open your arms and keep the palms up. Project an image that's welcoming -- even when you're inviting people to disagree with you! Check out the illustrations in this Washington Post article as well as the practical tips it offers.

Want to become a more powerful speaker? Please click here and scroll down to subscribe. Thanks! -- Rose