It has been an interesting couple of weeks, with the entire COVID-19 lockdown around the world as we grapple with a worldwide pandemic.

Most importantly, I hope you are keeping healthy and taking care of yourself and your loved ones. I know for sure that this too shall pass so as we harken to the voice of reason and observe physical distancing, we still have to keep our spirits up.

I have mostly been working from home at the moment, just like a greater proportion of the world. While sitting at home with the entire household glued to different screens – me and my wife working and the boys busy with housework, it struck me how different and difficult this new world seems to be. Speaking of how different things are – the teachers are reporting that for the first time in history they are seeing that 100% of their students have done their homework. That says it all right, in my day…….homework would always get eaten by the dog.

Two emails ago, we started a mini-series on how to stop using filler words during a presentation. If you missed that mail, you can always go back to the archive here. I had been tempted to share with you my own struggles with working at home, but since I have to learn how to focus, better I finalize this series.

In summary, we looked at why people use filler words – when nerves start to act up, forgetting aspects of the speech and the vocal cords trying to catch up with the speed of thought. Whenever we face any of these circumstances, it becomes a game of fill in the blanks, resulting in words that don’t add any value to your presentation – ehm, uhm, uh, like you know, isn’t it?

I remember my first ever presentation – this was way back as a freshman and as part of the course, we were supposed to summarize a chapter of the book and present it to the class. Standing there, I was filled with all manner of nerves, this time my mouth was not trying to catch up with my brain, instead, there were no words. As I looked at the entire class, all eyes focused on me waiting to hear me speak, words that have never existed started coming out. Uhm, you know, the country ehm, is like……. Eventually, I froze and stared at the class praying for the ground to open up and swallow me. Of course, since you’re reading this piece, that means the ground refused to open up.

One of the ways to fill this void created while speaking is to not speak at all. I mean, how simple is that, right? If I don’t speak, there is no way you will hear filler words. Duh, Ikenna, I don’t need you to tell me that. I have to speak, that is why I am giving the presentation in the first place. I don’t know about you but my audience is not made up of mind readers.

Ok, Ok, hold your horses. Yes, you are correct in the need to speak. However, do you need to speak the entire time? One of the misconceptions we have is that during a presentation, we need to eliminate every iota of silence. Maybe this has been ingrained in us early on – think about it for a bit, when we speak about silence you hear about awkward silence, deathly hush, and deafening silence. One of those oxymorons of the language, how can silence be deafening? But I digress. Because we associate silence with all these negative connotations, little wonder that we run away from being quiet especially in the case of standing before an audience.

Speaking in public can be by nature a scary prospect for different people. Adding onto this fear is the anxiety caused by this association of silence with awkwardness, which is why we fill that void with meaningless or dare I say it, useless words.

Going back to our solution, give yourself (and the audience) a break. Last week’s email dealt with playing catch up as one of the causes of …….you know. By keeping quiet, we give ourselves the time needed to remember what the brain had already shown us to be the follow-up point we need to make in our presentation.

Well, Ikenna, I have noticed that even when I try to pause, it just takes forever. How can I pause without making the audience uncomfortable?

The concept of time is fascinating, to say the least. No, I won’t bore you with the engineering of time. I will, however, misuse Einstein’s theory of Relativity. Simply put, there are two different clocks being used to measure the time when you are speaking to an audience – yours and the audiences. Actually, there is a third one, that of your host, but for the purpose of this email, we shall lump that together with the audience. Because we have these different clocks, the time as measured by you is different from that as judged by your audience. Where you believe the silence has been going on for years, the audience barely just caught their breath.

By pausing at critical intervals, you actually raise excitement in the audience. We are wondering what is coming up next and start hanging onto your every word. The best and yet scariest part is that when you take a breather, while your clock says it has taken a long time, you should actually make it longer.

How do you determine the best length for a pause?

Try this for size – practice they say makes perfect. Well, videotaped practice makes for quick perfect. You could decide to record only your voice, but the essence here is to playback your speech focusing on the duration of your pause, now as a listener. Try using this to gradually increase the length of your pause, observe for yourself when it becomes awkward.

To throw this out there, a 5 – 10-second pause during a speech builds you up more than it distracts your audience. A bonus effect of pausing is that people are forced to look up. You can actually (while trying to recollect your thoughts) influence the behaviour of your audience as they abandon other distracting activities to focus on catching that next word you will speak.

Bringing it all together, a pause is not evil and awkward. You can use it to your benefit by involving your audience and grabbing their attention just by…………

Next week, I will be bringing all this together. For now, I just want to wish you a happy lockdown (trust me that’s the best way to get through it).

Now I need your help – my bestselling book (I can dream too), is temporarily available for free download (next 5 days). If you don’t have it yet, please head over to Amazon and get yourself a copy today. If you have it, be so kind as to share this email with a friend. I appreciate you! Also, visit my new share – Byte-sized lessons from The Storyteller’s Student HERE.