Gabriela is a proud data nerd who loves her role at an online pet supply company. She’s responsible for customer surveys and, each month, compiles consumer opinions in order to improve the online shopping experience.
Last spring, Gabriela arrived at the monthly meeting, prepared as usual. She had sliced and diced the data, formatting the results into beautiful pie charts and embellished tables that matched the company branding.
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“So, um, here are this month’s customer survey results and, you know, the pie chart shows how satisfied the customers are with their, uh, overall website experience,” she said. “And so the important thing to, ah, highlight is that 80% of, uh, shoppers rated the site’s ease-of-use as like a four or five and this is, um, dramatically higher than, you know, the rating from three months ago.”
Gabriela knew the information she shared was relevant and well received, so she was stunned when her manager, Simone, wrote “improve gravitas” as a goal for Gabriela during her year-end review. “You identify and highlight accurate insights from the survey data,” Simone said. “But during the monthly meetings you come across as, well, junior. I am not sure exactly why—it’s just the impression I get when you present.”
Gabriela was perplexed. She wanted to meet Simone’s expectations, but had no idea how to be perceived as “more senior.” Simone offered to provide Gabriela with a communications coach, which is where I came into the story.
I’ve coached thousands of clients over the years and many of them have needed help learning how to pause and cutting out filler words.
Gabriela delivered a mock presentation and together we reviewed video recordings of this as well as a recent presentation she’d given to her team. During this process, we discovered that Gabriela tends to use filler words (um, uh, like) and speak in run-on sentences.
The good news is Gabriela’s communication foibles could be improved with one behavior: the pause. I explained that using a pause is key to replacing filler words and phrases. The pause also creates shorter, more impactful sentences, and an impression of confidence and control. It also conveys what Simone was seeking: gravitas.
After reviewing her presentations, we created an “exercise regimen” to establish Gabriela’s new pausing habit, which would help her stop using as many filler words.
The next time Gabriela spoke at a monthly meeting, she inserted more pauses into her presentation. The run-on sentences nearly disappeared, but she still used more filler words than desired. She continued to practice pausing exercises and, within weeks, she had dramatically reduced her filler words and improved her overall presentation style. Three months after the “gravitas” feedback, Simone told Gabriela she noticed a difference in her communication. By the end of the year, Gabriela received a hard-earned promotion from analyst to specialist and was rewarded with a salary increase, an extra week of vacation, and more interaction with the leadership team.
I’ve coached thousands of clients over the years and many of them, like Gabriela, have needed help learning how to pause and cutting out filler words when they do any kind of public speaking. Here are seven exercises I recommend if you’re trying to do the same:
Exercise 1: Pause and Filler Word Assessment
What: Evaluate and build awareness around your pause and filler word habits.
Why: How we perceive ourselves is different from how others see us. Listening to a recording of yourself will give you a more accurate sense of your behaviors, which is the best first step toward improving them.
- Find a previously recorded presentation or conversation that you took part in. Or record audio of yourself following this prompt: “Describe your current role and your prior experience that led you here.” Aim to speak for two or more minutes, and no less than 60 seconds.
- Listen without watching. It may feel cringey and jarring because you don't hear yourself the same way in your head as you do when you play back the audio. For these reasons, it’s good to listen a couple of times to get used to the sound of your voice before you’re ready to listen for pauses.
- Listen for:
- Pauses (frequency and length)
- Filler word and phrases (um, ah, uh, you know, like)
- Linking words between sentences (so, and, and so)
- Run-on sentences
Exercise 2: Ball Toss
What: Use a ball to signify how long to pause.
Why: When we create a new habit (pausing) or replace an ineffective pattern (using filler words), a physical movement can reinforce the new behavior.
- Find a small squishy ball or a tennis ball—or crumple a piece of paper into a ball.
- Practice an update you might need to deliver at a meeting. After each statement, toss the ball from one hand to the other to represent a pause. For example, “Here’s our plan to support district teachers.” [toss ball] “First, we will ensure they are vaccinated before returning to the classroom.” [toss ball] “Next, we’ll provide a resource day for planning.” [toss ball]
- During meetings, you can do the same, keeping your hands under the table or out of video range.
Exercise 3: “Veronica, I Give You...”
What: The first in a series of three exercises requiring you to move sticky notes that represent when to pause and for how long. Here, you’ll start by focusing on pausing while speaking about everyday objects.
Why: Again, practicing a new behavior while doing a physical activity increases the likelihood that it will become a habit.
How: Place five sticky notes on a wall at eye level two to three feet apart. Each sticky note represents one of your listeners. While looking at the first sticky note, say, “Veronica, I give you apples, bananas, and pineapples.” The objects can be everyday things like a pen, paper, and notebook or more complex and fun like a trip to Paris, a walk along the Seine, and a moonlit dinner.
When you complete the sentence, remove the note from the wall and toss it on the ground. The time it takes to remove the note and toss it on the ground represents the amount of time you intentionally pause (or take a breath).
Then move to the next sticky note and say, “Masako, I give you . . . .” with three different objects. Continue until you have “given” items to all five sticky note “people” and paused between each “person.”
Exercise 4: “Veronica, My Role Involves . . . ”
Why: This version provides an opportunity to practice pausing with content relevant to your job.
How: Repeat the “Veronica, I Give You” exercise with “real” content. This time you’ll describe your job to someone who doesn’t know what you do. Explain your role in five or more digestible chunks punctuated by pauses. This is an exercise, not a rehearsal, which means your priority is to share small bites of information and speak in shorter sentences than you would ordinarily—and punctuate the short sentences with pauses.
The quality of the content you share is not important. In fact, to do this exercise you’ll need to simplify the complexity of your role.
- “I am a project coordinator at Yelp.”
- “My role involves working with local businesses.”
- “I make sure businesses in my territory engage with their Yelp profile.”
- “Engagement includes keeping their profile current.”
Record yourself sharing these snippets of information, punctuated by pauses. Listen to the recording and note the difference between how long the pauses felt versus how they sound.
Exercise 5: “Veronica, Here is My Important Idea”
Why: In the third version of the sticky-note exercise, you raise the stakes even more by inserting pauses while you imagine proposing an idea to someone you look up to or want to impress.
How: Repeat the above “Veronica…” method using a recommendation you’d like to share at a meeting or with your boss.
Here is an example:
- “As a result of the company merger, we need to streamline processes.”
- “One way to do that is to meet with the customer success team.”
- “I’d like to contact the head of customer success to propose weekly meetings.”
- “Would you introduce me by email and I’ll take it from there?”
Exercise 6: Um-ectomy
What: An exercise that involves speaking freely with a partner who notifies you when you use filler words and phrases.
Why: To bring awareness to how often we use filler words and phrases when we could instead take the opportunity to pause.
- Find a partner, ideally someone who also wants to increase their pauses and/or remove filler words from their communication style. One person will serve as a speaker and the other as an observer.
- Both partners stand up to increase the pressure on the speaker.
- The observer gives the speaker a topic they need to discuss with no preparation. The speaker starts talking as soon as they receive a topic even if they can’t think of anything to say. Topics could include:
- The best vacation you’ve taken
- Where you would like to be in 10 years
- An embarrassing experience
- Your freshman year of college
- Changes you would make to your job
- The observer listens for filler words and phrases (um, ah, eh, like, so, you know, kinda, sorta) and for opportunities to pause.
- When the speaker utters a filler word, the observer repeats it back to them in a loud voice—right as the speaker is saying it.
- When the speaker could break up their thoughts into separate ideas, the observer puts up their hand in a “stop” gesture to indicate that the speaker should pause.
- Continue the exercise until the speaker is able to talk for three continuous minutes without uttering a filler word or using a run-on sentence.
Exercise 7: Computer Support
What: Use an app or software program to determine how often you use filler words and phrases.
Why: Behavior change requires consistent attention and practice over time.
- Download LikeSo, Ummo, or a similar app that lets you practice speaking while analyzing which filler words and phrases you use.
- Sign up for Otter or another transcription program that syncs with your Zoom account. At the end of your calls, read the transcripts to see how often you used filler words or phrases.
Pulling sticky notes off a wall or tossing a paper ball back and forth may feel silly, stupid, or too basic. This is normal. As voice and speech specialist and performance coach D’Arcy Webb says about vocal training, “You have to accept the fact you’re going to feel stupid when you’re learning vocal exercises and be OK with making odd sounds.” The same is true here. Trust that the process does indeed work! It has worked for my clients and it will work for you, too.
Adapted with permission from Speak Up, Dammit!: How to Quiet Your Fears, Polish Your Presence, and Share Your Voice by Hope Timberlake.