How to stop waffling once and for all

brain stops working Waffling happens when your brain stops working but your mouth keeps going.

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:

  1. Stop talking
  2. Look down at your notes
  3. Work out what you want to say next
  4. Look up again and find someone to talk to
  5. Start talking.

Easy… once you’ve got rid of those voices.

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  1. Great post, Olivia. Useful advice, as always!

    The difficulty I’ve seen is when presenters don’t *realise* they are waffling. I’ve seen presenters think they delivered their content well, when in fact they’ve panic-spoken over a point or two and ended up waffling as they’ve tried to overcome their nerves (or forgetfulness).

    The easiest way to identify this issue is timing. Of course, it can be difficult to identify how long a presentation should be, but asking a friend to time you on each slide or point can help the presenter to recognise when he or she has been speaking about a specific item for too long.

    At any rate, this is the practice I got into when rehearsing!

    • Hi Jessica

      And useful comment – as always!

      I agree with you that there is also this type of waffling – which needs a different solution to what I’ve suggested above. I’ve actually just come across it with two recent course participants. The defining characteristic was they spoke in immensely long sentences. What I found useful was to tell them to speak in shorter sentences or to “stop more often”. This enabled them to monitor themselves better and to stop at the point where they had said enough rather than rambling enough.


  2. Great little article

    I’ve been told I tend to waffle a lot too. I spoke to my family and friends who said they’ve honestly never noticed it, but in a business environment, I guess its different. Often I don’t realize I’m doing it out of panic and my notes become nonsense and unreadable.

    Cutting to the point was another related issue, so I think preparation and knowing the order in which you bring up topics is a key issue. The only time this becomes a challenge is during detailed questioning, which is often followed by the panic.

    Hopefully using your post will give me a head start in controlling all of this. Thank you for the great post!

    • Hi Matt

      Delighted that you found this article useful.


  3. Fantastic article! I waffle quite a bit during presentations; I usually very well prepared notes. But I find it incredibly difficult to look down at them and get them in my head and so I just go off and waffle! It’s terrible because I know that I’m consciously doing it. Thank you so much for the tips!

    • Hi Shabana
      I’m glad the article was helpful for you. Go well with your next presentation.