Speaking: When Silence Works Better Than Words

One of the easiest ways to improve your public speaking is to become better at using pauses. Initially people are afraid to leave pauses, especially at the beginning of their speaking career when they are still nervous. Other people tend to speak without breaks because they are trying to recite a memorized text -- never a great idea. See How to Memorize a Speech Effectively for the correct way to do this.

But a speech without pauses is much more tiring to listen to and people can miss key phrases as their brain struggles to parse a continuous stream of sounds without a break. It is the audible equivalent of trying to read Sir Thomas Malory's La Morte D'Arthur in the original, unpunctuated edition or a sentenceallruntogetherintoonebiglumplikethis.

Adding pauses helps people to understand what you are saying, it helps to attract attention and it helps to emphasize the key points. You can use pauses in several ways:

The Pause at the Beginning. One of the most common mistakes I see when coaching people is that they often start to speak too soon. It takes time for the audience to stop their side conversations, put their phones away and fully turn their attention to the stage. If a speaker starts too quickly they miss the first sentence or even more. You can avoid this by leaving a short pause before you start. Surprisingly this silence attracts more attention than speaking, and it is much more elegant than "can I have you attention please" (never, ever say that.)  What often happens is that the speaker starts instantly when the moderator has finished the introduction, saying something like "Goodmorningeveryonetodayiwilltalkabout..." while everyone is still trying to process that there is a new speaker. Much better to say "Good morning". (Pause). "Today I will..."  Don't forget to look at the audience and smile during the pause or people will just think you lost your place in the notes.

The Pause to Mark Change. Pauses are also very effective to mark changes in the subject or the beginning of a new section.When you are looking at your own script or notes there is a handy white space between paragraphs. The audience doesn't see this white space so a pause can be an audible equivalent. After a break people can recognize more easily that there has been a shift in the story. A pause can also be useful when a new image is shown on the screen. In the first few instants this image competes for attention anyway so people might not hear what you say. One other way to reinforce the idea of "new paragraph" in a talk is to combine the pause with a change in the direction the speaker is looking. This adds to the feeling that we are moving on in the story.

The Pause for Effect. Finally, pauses are a very effective way to underline some key point. Stop suddenly and you have everyone's attention. Whatever follows that pause is much more likely to be noticed, heard and processed. There should also be a pause just after every rhetorical question. These pauses often make the difference between a dull recital and a compelling, persuasive speech. Watch any great speaker on YouTube and you will see that they make very good use of the Pause for Effect.

Next time you are preparing a talk, speech or lecture take special care to pause in all the right places and get used to the sound of silence. At the beginning it can feel uncomfortable, but what how others use pauses and you will see that a short pause is always welcomed by the audience. Try watching any important speech on YouTube and you will see that this technique is part of the essential toolbox of orators everywhere.


Lectures, Workshops, Coaching, Writing

If you would like to be coached personally by Andrew Hennigan or discuss a speaking workshop you can contact him at speaker@andrewhennigan.com and 0046 730 894 475.

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