The solution to waffling is simple: When you have nothing ready to say, stop, look at your notes, work out what you to say, look up again and start talking.
Easy to say. Difficult to do. That’s because when you start waffling, rather than thinking logically about what you should do, you’re driven to keep talking.
The voices that keep you waffling
You’re driven by voices inside your head. They’re saying to you:
“You must keep talking during your presentation. If there’s any silence that would be awful and uncomfortable and you couldn’t stand that.”
“Don’t take your eyes off the audience. You’ve got to keep looking at them all the time.”
“Don’t look at your notes. If you look at your notes people will think you don’t know this stuff. You’ll look like a loser.”
Until you rid yourself of these voices, you’ll keep waffling. So let’s examine each of these voices and see if they’re true.
“You must keep talking. Silence is horrible”
Have you heard the public advice speaking that pausing is good! Hmmm… pausing=silence. Audiences like pausing (silence), because during that pause they can process what you’ve just said. Studies of people listening to classical music while having their brains scanned in MRI machines show that they’re brains light up during the silences between movements. That indicates that they’re brains are actively processing during those silences.
You can probably get this at an intellectual level. But still that silence can feel horrible when you’re standing in front of a group. It feels like the silence is stretching forever. To get over your fear of silence at a gut level, you need to experience the silence from an audience perspective. The way to do that is to video yourself presenting in front of a friendly audience of a few friends or family. Pause until you start feeling uncomfortable. Ask your audience how they experienced the pause. Sometimes they may even say “what pause?” Now watch back your pause. How long was it really?
Practice this until you can pause for about 5 seconds. That’s how long you’ll need to look at your notes and work out what you want to say. That’s what it will take for you to stop waffling.
“Keep an eye on the audience”
As well as stopping talking, you’ll also need to look down to look at your notes. This can be quite hard to do for more than a millisecond. That’s because when you’re speaking in front of a group, you’re in a high-stress situation and the stress is caused by the threat of the group judging you. And when we’re threatened our instinct is to keep an eye on the threat. So to look down for more than a millisecond you have to override your instinct to keep looking at the threat. Practice looking down in front of your friendly audience.
Because that’s what it takes to stop waffling – taking your eye off the audience so that you can look at your notes.
“Don’t look at your notes”
Yep, in an ideal world, we’d all have a perfect memory and none of us would need notes. But that’s not the case.
You may look at professional speakers, see that they don’t use notes and assume that you shouldn’t either. But politicians have teleprompters and paid professional speakers deliver the same presentation over and over again. Don’t measure yourself against them.
Which is the greater evil? Looking at your notes or waffling? If you want to stop waffling, get used to the idea of looking at your notes. That’s what it will take.
So next time you realize the words aren’t ready and you might start waffling:
- Stop talking
- Look down at your notes
- Work out what you want to say next
- Look up again and find someone to talk to
- Start talking.
Easy… once you’ve got rid of those voices.