Every Great Speaker Is a Fantastic Pauser — On Using Pauses and Silences in Public Speaking

If there’s one thing that people get wrong about truly great public speaking it is that they focus too much on the words. This is understandable, in its own way. Speaking seems to be all about words (although I just wrote about the importance of gestures and movements), so we obsess about them. We talk about the right words, enough words, cram words into keynotes, put words on slides, repeat words, rehearse our words and so on. Still, great speaking isn’t just about words, but about the use of words and what makes a word a word — i.e. the space between words. I mean, think about it. Withoutpauseswordsbecomejustonedenseporridgeoflettersandwhiledeciphreablestillmerelyannoysthereaderorlistener…

Whilst the run-together word above might seem a trivial point, it really isn’t. Pauses, short and long, are central in speaking. The greatest speakers know this, and use pauses strategically. In part this has to do with cadence and rhythm in speaking, and I’ll return to this in a later piece. Here, however, I’m interested in what might be called “the pause for effect”, the longer, measured pause that a great speaker can deploy to increase tension, underline a point, enhance a joke, and so on. This isn’t an easy art, but it can be what separates an OK speech from a great one, and it is with this in mind I’ve written this short “primer to the pause for effect”.

To start, some advice. To immediately become a better speaker, you only need to stick to the following:

When in doubt, pause for a moment longer.

If you think this sounds like curious advice, it is because you think of those long, awkward pauses that occur when amateurish speakers lose their thread or just freeze in front of the audience. That is not what I’m talking about here. What I’m referring to is the tendency among OK but inexperienced speakers to fill every void with sound, rush past every point, fearing that if they do not keep talking the audience will pounce and/or riot.

What happens then is that speeches that could be good, even great, become muddled, rushed affairs, and the multitude of great points within them become lost as the speaker doesn’t dare emphasize things or give the audience a chance to react. In effect, it becomes like a rock show with no breaks for applause, no banter between songs, no rhythm except a merciless beat — clubbing without the joys of intoxicants and sexual energy.

Great speakers understand this and make use of pauses in various ways. The best can control their pauses down to the nanosecond, keeping tension perfectly and creating a rhythm simply by not speaking, a kind of harmonious use of silence. To learn how to do this takes courage, for it often requires that you hold pauses for longer than you’re accustomed and conditioned to, yet it is a very worthwhile lesson. The reason I say you should train yourself to hold a pause when in doubt is that it can teach you the power of the pause, and you just might be surprised how powerful they can be

What kind of pauses should you be using?

Not all pauses are created equal. There are many, many ways in which a pause can enhance your speech, and I will here only illustrate the broad strokes. Different speakers use pauses differently. I, personally, talk a lot and quickly when on stage, and I like to use pauses a little idiosyncratically. I use less pauses early on, except when joking, and increase their frequency towards the end, pushing my audience and then letting them breathe more towards the end. This, however, is my way, not the only way. Look through the following, and design the pauses in your speech for your own way of delivery. Just remember to use them, and to dare to make them proper pauses. Remember: When in doubt, wait for a beat longer.

The pause for emphasis. This is the basic pause, the most common one, and a great one to practice with. Let’s face it, if your speech doesn’t contain specific points that require emphasis, you shouldn’t be up there giving it. A speech without points is a ramble, and they’re best reserved for dear friends and long-suffering partners. If you, as I hope, have a strong point in your speech, one that can be condensed into a nice line, this should be followed by a point for emphasis. Signal that you just said something you find significant, something the audience is meant to take away from your speech. A pause, an emphasized one, is very good for doing this. But this shouldn’t be just a moment to draw a breath, and then move directly to your next point. Instead, wait for the audience to register your point. Wait for a beat, look at the audience. You have more time than you think before the pause registers as strange or awkward. Test the three-second-rule — deliver your point, then count slowly to three. The start anew, but more softly, to signal you’re now starting in on a new point.

The pause for a punchline. This one is tricky. When using humor on stage, there is a tendency to chicken out when a jokey punchline doesn’t get an immediate response. This is a mistake. Jokes take longer to register on stage, so the audience need an extra beat to pick up on them. A punchline may even pass the audience by if you don’t make it clear that it’s put into the speech in order to get a laugh. Audience-laughs are like waves. They start softly, unless very deftly set up, and then build from there. Waiting for an extra second may be the difference between a joke that gets a polite laugh and one that has the audience in stitches.

The pause for reflection. Your speech may contain elements that require for the audience to mull them over for a bit. It may be because you’re dealing with complex material, or because the speech deals with issues that are quite personal and internal. So there may be a need for a pause for silent contemplation, almost a prayer. This can be very powerful and very moving, but is also one of the few kinds of pauses that people drag out for too long. A moment of contemplation is good, but if extended too far can break up the momentum of the speech, and worse than this, seem tacky and overly sentimental. Audiences are skittish things as well, and a pause for reflection that goes on for too long may get people thinking about taxes, or sex, or a thousand other things that draws them out of the speech. Once this has happened, it can be very tricky to pull them back in.

The dramatic pause. A dramatic pause is similar to the pause for emphasis, but they’re not identical! A dramatic pause is part of an arc, where a story might have an intro, a build-up, and then a surprise twist. The deployment of the dramatic pause is a great way to increase the tension before the surprise twist (or the punchline), and often people are too scared to really let the drama build. I’m not talking about making the pause melodramatic or hammy, but long enough to be significant and interesting. My own rule of thumb is that a pause the length of a very deep breath is about right. That said, one should remember that the dramatic pause may well be the most versatile of all the pauses in a speakers arsenal! It can be used in the basic way, as a builder of dramatic tension, but it can also be done in many other ways. One is the rhetorical question, in which you ask a question, and do a dramatic pause to signify the importance of both the question and the answer that is to follow. It can be cheeky and humoristic, where you use it as a wink to the audience — “we all know how these pauses work, don’t we?”. It can be used in a theatrical manner, for instance so that you end your build-up in a kind of a slump, holding the sense of despair for a beat before you bounce back with a vengeance. Dramatic pauses are great when you know how to use them!

The lead-in pause. This is a sibling of the dramatic pause, but is deployed in a slightly different way. A lead-in pause should be used when you want to signal to the audience that what follows is of particular importance. It signals that you’re taking them on a new trip, a new path, and that they need to be alert when you start up. This can be longer than many of the others, as it will build tension slowly, which you then release by softly going into your next point. This is a good time to take a sip of water, collect your thoughts, take a few steps towards the podium and re-positioning yourself on the stage. You don’t need to be theatrical, but you can if you want to. True masters of stagecraft can draw this one out beautifully, but if you’re a beginner you should ease into it.

The break. Sometimes the pause is as much for yourself as it is for the audience. It’s hard to be on stage, and the audience knows it. Sometimes you just need to slow your own flow down, create a space where the speech shifts intensities. It can be the moment when you show to the audience you struggle with the issues you’re describing, or just a moment when you ponder your next step. The audience understands. No story has only high-points, and a break can be needed for the rest of your speech to stand out.

Learning to Pause

So there you have it, a number of pauses to insert into your next speech. No doubt you’re already using many of these, but unless you’re a professional speaker (and, sometimes, even if you’re a professional speaker), you probably do so in a subconscious, only partly planned manner. Pauses are tricky, because they cannot be practiced unless in front of a live audience, so just writing (dramatic pause) in your manuscript isn’t enough. Instead, the next time you’re giving a speech, be mindful of your pauses. Add an extra beat to a few, and see what happens. Wait a little extra after your best joke, and see how the audience responds. Try out a new kind of pause, one you’ve not tried before. You might just be surprised. Just make sure you’re not so surprised you insert an unplanned break by mistake.


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