Whenever I work with my clients, I try not only to help them develop useful techniques, but also to explain why they can be effective in practice. When it comes to the power of pausing, there are three primary reasons why strategically placed moments of silence are essential for every speaker to add to their repertoire: They allow you as a speaker to concentrate on your ultimate call to action, they can create suspense for your audience, and they help control the overall pace of your delivery.
The thing is, integrating “the pause” is not as easy as just stopping here or there throughout your message. In fact, many of my clients aren’t sure where to begin when leveraging the pause technique. To help, I’ve compiled the following “power of the pause” techniques to incorporate as you practice your next presentation:
- Clause Pause: Use short pauses where there is normally a comma that separates two clauses or particular items in a long list. “Wanting to impress my girlfriend, [pause] I brought flowers, [pause] wine, [pause] and dessert.”
- Sentence Pause: Use medium pauses wherever a period, question mark, or exclamation point normally appears in order to separate two sentences. “After six days of climbing, we summited Mount Kilimanjaro. [pause] I can’t believe I actually did it!”
- Paragraph Pause: Use long pauses when you transition from one idea to the next. In written language, we always indent when starting a new paragraph. The same is true with speaking. The pause sends a signal preparing the listener that something important or unique is about to happen.
- Emphasis Pause: While creating emphasis is a result of using strategic pauses, sometimes you may want to draw attention to one or two key words. Pause immediately before and after that word or phrase, thus signaling the listener that what you are about to say is important. [pause] And the Oscar goes to [pause] Tom Hanks!
- Rhetorical Question Pause: It’s gratifying to watch heads nod in an audience when you pose a rhetorical question. This motivates your audience to stay engaged as they contemplate the answer to your question. Overall, your aim is to provoke a thought that lends credence to your message. On the other hand, failure to pause after posing a rhetorical question often frustrates your audience.
- Power Pause: I often open my speeches this way. Before I utter a word, I lock my eyes on to my audience. Each second I wait serves two purposes: It allows me to center myself as I silently assess the dynamic of the room. Second, it strengthens the impact of my opening words. This has to be done with tremendous confidence, or else the silence may seem forced and awkward. Opening with a pause can be a valuable asset to speakers. How often have you seen a speaker stand up and immediately launch into his speech? One word follows another; the listener has a hard time separating what should be stressed and what should not. No one remembers the opening, because it doesn’t stand out.
- Punch Line: We can learn a great deal from comedians in speech communication. Their livelihoods depend on perfect timing. When telling jokes, which are often stories, their objective is to create a heightened sense of anticipation. They are signaling to the audience that (wait for it) a payoff is about to come. They pause immediately before a punch line to create tension—and then immediately after to allow the audience to release their laughter. Remember to extend the pause for as long as there is laughter.
- “Glass of Water” Pause/“Let Me Think about This” Pause: When giving longer presentations, you’re prone to getting thirsty. I’ve seen speakers avoid taking time to drink some water only to diminish their ability to close a speech with power, because they were parched. Many people I coach are hesitant to do this, as they worry it looks unnatural. That’s not the case. Audiences are so accustomed to the sight of speakers drinking water that they often don’t even notice. The glass-of-water pause is an effective tactic that should be used more often. While you’re taking a sip, use that time to gather your thoughts, refresh, and continue where you left off.
- Check My Notes: I often take audience questions that require time for me to contemplate and fully answer. The last thing you want is to offer an audience a knee-jerk reaction to an important question. In their quest to please and look responsive, many presenters blurt out half-formed answers at lighting speed, only to regret it later.
Asses your public speaking strengths and weaknesses and learn more about the power of the pause as well as other techniques that will dramatically improve your speech.