When words fail you: 6 tips for speakers

In can happen to even seasoned presenters: A question or comment you haven’t anticipated stops you short. Here are some ideas for how to regroup.

Every speaker encounters moments when the words he or she needs don’t emerge on time.

That’s especially true in Q and A sessions or media interviews, but it may happen to you in any speaking situation.

For those occasions when you just need time to think about what to say next, here are some stepping stones to get you across the deep river of stumbles and silence. They’re tips to help you gather and express your thoughts:

1. Use a neutral phrase to buy yourself some time.

A medium-length phrase lets you get a response started, while thinking what you’ll say at its end. “I’m trying to recall a time when that happened,” or, “Let’s look at the evidence on that point,” can move your answer forward while buying you time.

2. Use a time-buying phrase instead of “um” or “uh.”

For many speakers, “um” and “uh” are signals that they’re trying to think of what to say. Replace them with a time-buying phrase to sound more eloquent and responsive.

3. Incorporate your own experience to answer the question while buying time.

“No one’s ever asked me that before,” or, “I’ve spent 20 years doing this research and that’s never come up once,” buy you several moments to gather your thoughts and help the audience learn a bit more about you.

4. Don’t overuse your time-buying phrase.

“That’s a really good question,” is well on its way to being the most overused phrase interviewees or speakers employ to buy time. If you say it over and over, your audience will tune out—and you’ll be emphasizing that you don’t know what to say.

5. Don’t use a phrase that’s too short.

Many speakers or media interview subjects start every answer with “So…” or “Well…” and, over the course of one presentation or interview, those words become like “ums,” “uhs,” or other awkward pauses. They sound like a mistake and are too short to buy time.

6. If appropriate to the question, use the time-buying phrase to redirect the answer to a point you want to make.

Many questioners pose a query that presumes a certain answer: “Have you always wanted to be a writer?” or, “Didn’t you enjoy the talk by Dr. Smith?” If you need to say no nicely in response, soften it with a time-buying phrase—”It probably sounds as if I did, but that isn’t the case”—and follow up with your real answer: “In fact, I always thought I’d be a fireman,” or, “We disagree on many key points.”

With practice, you can learn to automatically take this approach instead of using “ums” and “uhs” to buy time.

Denise Graveline is the president of don’t get caught, a communications consultancy. She also writes The Eloquent Woman blog, where a version of this article originally ran.

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