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Pause for Power: Why You Need to Become Comfortable With Silence

George Torok
Mar 01, 2018

In public speaking, the occasional silence is actually a good thing.

An old cliche says that silence is golden. There are times when you might appreciate some silence in your life. On the other hand, silence can feel disquieting, disturbing and anxiety-ridden.

When you are speaking to an audience, you might consider silence the enemy or the sign of a bad presentation. Imagine that you get lost in your thoughts and stop speaking. You go silent and anguished while trying to recover and start speaking again. You might even feel that any noise is preferable to silence. That’s when the umms and ahhs escape your lips. 

Don’t panic. Consider the benefits of pauses in your presentation. Even an unplanned pause can be perceived positively by the audience.

Many speakers would improve the power of their presentation if they inserted tactical pauses. The ability to pause might be the most important technique that speakers need to learn. It might sound simple, but, like many simple lessons, it’s not easy. 

It can be extremely difficult to pause when you are delivering a presentation. You might feel compelled to speak because you believe silence is the enemy. You perceive pausing as a sign of weakness. The reality is that silence could be your most powerful communication tool.

Perhaps you’re not convinced. That’s understandable. Consider these 11 reasons to pause during your presentation. 

1. Demonstrate confidence

It requires a tremendous level of confidence to purposely pause during your presentation. When you’re at the front of the room, the audience expects you to speak. You might feel an obligation to speak continuously. When you can break free of that imagined need to speak by inserting a pause, they will admire your composure and confidence. Be sure to look calm and smile.

2. Grab attention

A pause is an effective way to grab attention. There are two ways you might use this technique. After you are introduced, walk on stage and say nothing. Simply pause for three to five seconds and wait for the full attention of the audience. It’s a powerful opening. Depending on the audience, you might need to pause longer than five seconds. You’ll probably feel uncomfortable when you first try this technique, but it’s worth mastering.

At another point in your presentation, you might be delivering a story or about to provide important information. That’s when you pause to grab attention. It’s the contrast, the surprise, that grabs attention. 

3. Build anticipation

Anticipation magnifies the value and memorability of the message. Notice the anticipation at the Oscars enhanced by the phrase “May I have the envelope, please?” That phrase is always followed by the mandatory pause, because it’s the pause that allows the anticipation to build. Imagine that phrase without the pause. It would be boring. 

4. Add drama

Drama attracts attention, engages the audience and enhances memorability. The two key elements are emphasis and contrast. Emphasis draws attention to the subject. Contrast reveals drastic differences. Curiously, the pause contributes to both emphasis and contrast. Notice the drama that the pauses add to Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy. 

5. Allow them time to think

There’s no point if offering your audience powerful insights unless they have time to internalize them. When you state a significant point or present a challenging question, allow them time to think about it. Pause so the audience can ponder your wisdom. If your statement was especially insightful, you’d be wasting your point if you didn’t give them the time to digest the thought. 

6. Allow time to laugh

This is similar to the previous point. When you say something funny, you probably want the audience to laugh. If it was funny, they want to laugh. They need time to process your words, recognize the humor and then laugh. Every successful comedian knows the importance of waiting for the laugh. It will often take longer than you expected. Comedian George Burns admitted that he would shove his unlit cigar in his mouth to force himself to shut up and wait for the laugh. 

If you don’t give them enough time, you killed the laugh and wasted your humor. 

7. Gain time to think before you respond

When you’re answering questions from the audience, there are at least two reasons to pause. The first reason is that it provides you more time to think about your answer. This is especially important when facing a tough or ambiguous question. The second reason is that pauses build anticipation and hence the value of the answer. If you answer the question too quickly, it demeans both the question and answer. 

8. Put more focus on your words

When you want to emphasize a phrase, pause before and after the phrase. That focuses attention on the key phrase because of the combination of drama, anticipation and contrast. 

That’s the equivalent of putting those words in a separate paragraph. 

9. Eliminate filler words

“You know,” “um,” “ah,” “like,” “so,” “whatever” – all filler words that add no value and, when repeatedly uttered, will annoy your listeners. When people are annoyed, they don’t believe you and will soon stop listening. If you use filler words, it usually means that you are thinking and uncomfortable with the silence. The secret to eliminating filler words is to substitute a pause for the noise. That might sound simple, but it’s not easy. It takes practice and diligence. The resulting pauses convey a confident speaker. 

10. Recapture attention

It’s almost impossible to hold the attention of the audience throughout your presentation. You need to recapture their attention, and pausing is an effective way to do that. Simply look at the audience with a calm smile and say nothing for as long as it takes. That could be several seconds that feels like eons to you. 

11. Invite interaction

When you want the audience to speak, you must allow them that silence to think and respond. When you want a response, ask a question and wait in silence for the first answer. Then prod the group for another opinion and wait. 

Pausing while standing before your audience can feel horrendous, yet it might be the most powerful presentation technique for you to master. 

Now, pause and reflect.

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George Torok
Shy, Introverted Student Becomes Presentations Expert, Coach & Motivational Speaker I was NOT a natural born public speaker. I was a shy student. I am an introvert by nature. Today I love the thrill of speaking before an audience. That means I am effective and efficient as your presentation skills trainer and speech coach because I learned the hard way how to speak. I stumbled a lot, embarrassed myself and made many mistakes. I understand the fundamentals and can teach them to others effectively. I learned the techniques that improve the power of a presentation. I know the mistakes and can help you avoid them. How Did I Learn? Invested more than 10,000 hours in my presentation skills development. Focused on becoming a better speaker. Read dozens of books on public speaking and presentation skills. Threw myself into the Toastmasters public speaking program for years. Mentored by Canada’s Business Presentation Guru, Peter Urs Bender. Received speech coaching from some of the best speech coaches in North America, including; Ron Arden, Patricia Fripp and Lou Heckler. Attended the 3-day Professional Speakers boot camp with past Chairs of the Global Speakers Federation, Warren Evans and Kit Grant. Spoke often, kept listening and refining. And more… ---------------------------- Association Clients CPSA, Canadian Professional Sales Association; HRPAO, Human Resource Professional Association of Ontario; CIM, Canadian Institute of Management; CSAE, Canadian Society of Association Executives; ...