Silence is a powerful tool for a great communicator. A bit of silence can be as effective as a shout for getting an audience’s attention, yet many people find pauses so uncomfortable that they run over them with more content or, worse yet, fillers like “ums” and “uhs.” Instead of being uncomfortable with silence, learn how and when to use pauses effectively to control the audience’s attention. With a little practice, you will learn to savor every silence.
Before discussing three times when pauses can be most effective, it is important to nail down the technique of an effective pause. People often make two key mistakes. First, speakers tend to pause for too short a time. An effective pause should be 1-2 second long break (one “beat” in acting parlance) in your speaking. It should be long enough to be felt by the audience, and it will feel twice as long to the speaker as it will to the audience, meaning that if you do not feel a twinge of discomfort in the silence, it likely was not long enough.
Second, it is critical not only to pause your speech, but pause your movement as well. This means no fidgeting, pacing, or shuffling papers. Most importantly, you should always maintain good eye contact throughout the pause. The goal is to make clear the pause is deliberate and to show that you are still in control. If you look down at your papers, the silence will seem accidental, as though you lost your place, and its power is lost.
Once you have the technique, it is just a matter of showing it off. There are three key ways pauses amp up a presentation. Let’s discuss each separately.
1. The “look at me” pause
Before you begin speaking, stand before your audience calmly for 1-2 seconds and say nothing at all. Just look out to your audience and take a full breath in and out. In that short time, notice all sound in the room come to a halt and all eyes turn to you. Silence draws an audience in and quiets them as they wait in suspense for the speaker to begin. This trick has helped countless schoolteachers take back control over a noisy classroom. Similarly, a good trial lawyer will stand before the jury for a few seconds before beginning an opening or closing. The key is to be absolutely silent and confident as you wait for silence to fall over the crowd, and the audience will reward you with their undivided attention. Since the beginning of a presentation is often the most important, use a pause to ensure the audience hangs on every word.
2. The “section break” pause
An oral presentation without pauses is a bit like an essay without paragraph breaks. Paragraph breaks signal to readers that they should mentally close off one point and prepare to consider something new, and without those breaks, the content simply muddles together. An oral presentation is no different. The human mind needs to be told when one point is ending and another is beginning, and a pause helps signal that a break in the logic has come. For extra points, in addition to pausing between sections of the presentation, take a few slow steps to the side as you begin the new point to further highlight that a transition is happening.
3. The “that was important” pause
The most important pauses of all are those that you pair with your most key points. If you circle the three most important sentences in your presentation–that is, the most concise lines that you want the audience to remember–you should be prepared to follow each key line with a pause. When I recorded my own presentations years ago, I was shocked to see how often I would state a key point and then follow it up with further information immediately, as though I was in a race to support my main point with further evidence or additional material. Do not make this same mistake. Land each point with confidence, and pause after to let it resonate. The pause helps throw a spotlight on your key points and dramatically increase the chances of their being retained. Interestingly, such pauses serve a second purpose: they gives time for distracted listeners to catch up. Even if a listener has not been paying attention, the silence signals that something important just happened, and the person can actually replay and process the previous 3-4 seconds of sound; this is all thanks to a fascinating feature of the brain known as echoic memory. Without a well-timed pause, a lost audience member would simply remain lost.
By using pauses effectively, you can control the flow of a presentation and maximize the likelihood that the audience will remember your key points. It is not easy at first to feel comfortable standing in silence in front of an audience, but the payoff in audience impact and retention can be tremendous.