Whether you’re having a casual conversation or giving a speech or introducing yourself, sometimes the most powerful thing you say is actually what you don’t say.

It’s that moment of silence between thoughts—the pause. Why is the pause so important?

A little breathing room gives your words more weight.

It helps your listeners understand you and give some thought to what you say.

That brief break demonstrates considerable confidence.

What gets in the way of the pause? Fillers like “um, uh, like, y’know, sooooooo, ‘kay.” They’re unnecessary words that just fill up the space. “Basically” is another common one. “Effectively.” “Essentially.” “Actually.” And “right?”

I wrestle with “right” myself. I’ve caught myself more than once using it where it’s not needed. Whatever I just said, of course it’s right–there’s no need to ask. Unless it’s a genuine question, of course…and in that case, I need to take a real pause, so people have time to respond.

But this habit of sticking “right” at the end of a sentence, it isn’t usually about asking anybody anything. It’s just a habit a lot of speakers have. And an irritating one at that.

Sometimes we get stuck on longer phrases that become repetitive; the repetition makes them jump out at the people we’re talking to. They’re aggravating. Know what I mean? Yes – “Know what I mean?” is one of them. Often abbreviated to something that sounds like “nuhmeen?”

Teachers, trainers and others who hope their listeners are learning, are taught to check for understanding. The idea is to make sure they’re not losing people. And that seems like a good idea…until it becomes automatic. How often have you heard someone tag every other statement with “Does that make sense?”

It’s risky to ask that question. It suggests the speaker is unsure about his own ability to make a point. Or she thinks her listeners aren’t quite smart enough to get it–checking for understanding can come off as quite patronizing. Those aren’t usually the impressions we want our audience to have.

I was in a group where the speaker dropped in over and over and over, “Are you with me.” There’s no question mark there–by design. Because she didn’t say it as a question. Her tone suggested that we better damn well be with her or else!

How would you know if you’ve developed one of these annoying vocal habits? They’re often so automatic, we don’t realize we’re saying them, so we don’t know we have something to correct. We often hear what we’re thinking even though it’s not exactly what’s coming out of our mouth.

Sometimes your audience will tell you. I was doing a workshop on professional presence for job-seekers. I realized I’d defaulted too often to asking, “Is that clear?” … the third time a guy in the group said, “Crystal.”

You might recruit a friend who will give you honest feedback. Sometimes an individual who’s not in your own head can hear you much more clearly than you can.

 Or listen to a recording of yourself speaking. Yes, it can be painful to hear your disfluencies; it’s also very helpful.

If you’re doing a lot of um-ing and er-ing and like-y’know-ing, you’ll do yourself (and your listeners!) a favor to minimize all that.

You don’t have to eliminate all your verbal tics all the time. Yes, I know, there are groups that work very hard to train their members to eradicate every one of their non-words. They count ums and ahs and soooooos and evaluate each other accordingly.

I’m not for that intense focus on filler. If you’re in the moment with your audience and engaged in your own content, the occasional vocalized pause can wind up sounding thoughtful, conversational and natural. And speakers who never use any fillers can come off as robotic and over-rehearsed.

But it’s a fine line. Too many “um, uhs” “reallys” and “likes” will make people take you less seriously. They start to wonder if you really, um, know what you’re talking about.

So, what’s the solution?

Once you’ve figured out your default filler, try slowing down a bit. Give yourself room to think rather than racing to get it all out at once.

Focus on the people you’re talking to – get very intentional about that. The more we pay attention to our listeners, the less we’re rattling around in our own head. It calms the nerves. Steady, direct eye contact can help.

And get comfortable with pausing between words and sentences. That little breath of silence is welcome on both sides of a conversation. Don’t blow through it with sounds we don’t need to hear.

Maybe you have a pet phrase or favorite filler?

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