The Power of the Pause and How to Use it Effectively When Speaking

If you were one of the more than 18 million people watching President Obama’s State of the Union a few weeks ago, you may have noticed that many moments of the speech did not involve speaking.

Throughout the speech, President Obama made sure to include plenty of silent pauses. In just the first three minutes of the speech, I counted nine silent pauses. These pauses were not to allow for laughter or applause that otherwise would interrupt the speech. They were deliberate and purposeful moments of quiet.

The power of silent pauses while speaking is under appreciated. They can add immense value to any presentation. If a silent pause is used effectively it conveys one of the most important attributes for any speaker: confidence.

Silently Confident

Silence in social settings can be an invitation for awkward shuffling and sideways glances. If you are at all uncomfortable making small talk or talking to large crowds, the thought of silence probably fills you with the same dread as getting a root canal. This common dread of silence though is exactly why using pauses can make you appear to be the most confident person in the room.

The silent pause sends a message that you are not afraid of what many others fear. It also signals that whatever you just said is so important that the audience should take time to absorb it. When used properly, the silent pause lets your listeners know that you are in control of the room.

Effectively Using the Silent Pause

To convey to your audience that you are calm, confident, and in control, the silent pause must be used effectively. Here are my tips for implementing it for impact.

First, your body language must convey confidence as well.

If you really are confident enough to pause during your speech, then your body should send that message as well. If you are pausing because you forgot your next line, then your body language very well may give you away. To send the right signals, do not look down at your notes or avert your eyes from the crowd. Avoid shuffling or shifting during the pause. Stand tall and straight and continue to look at the audience.

Second, use the pause in appropriate places during your speech.

You want the pause to come at parts of your speech that intuitively make sense. For example, transitions between sections of your speech are a great place to allow for some silence. If you want to emphasize a point that you’ve made, try varying your vocal tone and then immediately pausing after that point. Try to avoid pausing in the middle of a list or explanation. Ill-timed pauses can cause the audience to wonder if you lost your train of thought, rather than be amazed at your confidence.

Third, do not allow the silence to last for too long.

A good rule of thumb is to pause and count in your head: “one, one thousand, two, one thousand.” These two seconds of silence will be just long enough to the audience who is engaged with your speech. If you pause for more than two seconds, then people may begin to shift in their seats and — worst of all — reach for their phones to start scrolling!

Finally, consider crafting a dramatic moment after the pause.

When you begin speaking after a silent pause, consider whether the moment is right to truly grab the audience’s attention. If it is, start speaking more quietly than normal. Lean in with your upper body as if you are engaged in a private conversation with each audience member. They will be at the edge of their seats waiting for your next words.

When it comes to public speaking, remember that silence in fact can be golden.