If you want to be...the best public speaker you can be...you might just want...to insert some pauses...into every speech you give.

At least, that's what President Barack Obama would tell you.

Regardless of how you might feel about the actual content or philosophies behind President Barack Obama's speeches, there's no denying that he pauses regularly as he's talking. He even jokingly made fun of the trait in an interview skit with Steven Colbert. Those hesitations aren't a bad thing. In fact, perfecting them in your own speech could be just what you need to put more punch and power in your communications.

What makes hesitating so incredible

When most people talk, they naturally make use of filler words and phrases like "um", "well" and "you know". Fillers serve a variety of functions, including signaling that you're not finished with your turn in a conversation and giving clues to listeners about your mental state (e.g., anxious, humble). But they also have a cognitive function, buying you time to remember and think.

Award-winning speaker Steven D. Cohen of Harvard University acknowledges the cognitive value of fillers. But as Toastmasters International points out, too many fillers can distract your audience. That's why so many speech experts recommend trying to eliminate them from your conversations or presentations. Cohen asserts that the easiest way to do this is to pause.

Now, you're probably thinking, "But I can't pause! Pausing will make me seem inarticulate!" But according to Toastmasters, this fear is pretty unfounded. It asserts that pauses actually are more impressive than fillers, because listeners know that you're trying to find the right thing to say in a more controlled way, and they respect that process.

Bringing pauses into your speech

When President Obama sprinkles pauses through what he says, he's demonstrating that he's confident enough to embrace silence, has an acute awareness of the attention of his audience and is intelligently thinking through what he says. And when he pauses, you can mentally and emotionally process what he's saying more deeply, too. With practice, you can come across the same way.

Sims Wyeth of CBS News offers a simple exercise to get you to pause and sound more Obama-esque: Take a printed copy of a text and make marks in your paragraphs where you're going to pause. Wyeth uses a forward slash (/) between words for this, but it's fine to use other easy symbols. You even can use color instead if you like, as long as you recognize what it means consistently. There's no "right" or "wrong" about where to mark. Just experiment.

Once you have your text marked up, read it aloud. Stop each time you come to a marking and inhale to the count of three before moving on. At first, it might feel like your pauses are taking an eternity, but trust that they're not. You're simply getting used to "um" and similar words not being there to fill the silence! You'll eventually get to the point where the pauses feel natural and you relax doing them. From there, try to transfer your pause habit away from reading and into your general speech.

Put your speaking anxiety to bed

As psychologist Glenn Croston explains, people fear public speaking because, on a primal, subconscious level, they think that, if they say something "wrong" or unintelligent, others will ostracize and reject them. It's basically survival instinct, a way to ensure we're not kicked out of the group and left to the dangers of the world. But tricks like learning to pause can go a long way in terms of giving a good impression, creating positive speaking experiences and calming our anxiety. So give Wyeth's pause exercise a try. After all, you have valuable thoughts. Don't others deserve the chance to know them?

Published on: Jan 13, 2017