The most precious things in speech are the pauses." - Sir Ralph Richardson
Did you know that your power as a speaker begins with using silence?
That's because you must command your audience's attention. You've seen it (and heard it) many times with powerful presenters: a speaker who embodies authority will pause at the podium or the front of the room before beginning. In that moment, the audience attends. Chatting ceases, minds become focused, and everyone's gaze goes where it should: to the leader in the room.
That's the power of the pause. And it's one of the best ways to use the essential tool of silence when speaking in public.
(Discover the other essential vocal tools of public speaking from my free cheat sheet, "5 Key Tools of Vocal Dynamics.")
What are some of the other ways to use silence productively when you speak? Here are 5 choices for powering up audience attention and increasing your influence by employing this simple but highly effective speaking tool.
- Pause between the major parts of your speech. Audiences process information best when they receive it in manageable pieces. One of the biggest problems in public speaking occurs when presenters deliver major point after major point without stopping. What listeners receive is a thicket of data with no path to help them find their way through it. Pause between your Introduction and Body, and between your Body and your Conclusion. Presumably, each of these segments sounds different and delivers different information. Do the same between each of your main points, for the same reason.
- Using silence allows your audience to absorb information. Have you just said something important that your listeners need to absorb and retain? If so, you must pause to allow them to process that information. Remember that audiences respond to you in real time: they can't turn the page back to reacquaint themselves with what you just said. A brief silence allows them to "fix" your critical message in their minds.
- Ever hear of a dramatic pause? Use them! Actors understand that one of the most powerful tools of performance is the dramatic pause. In my own stage career, I'd always be amazed at the tension that would gather in an audience, peeling like a thunderclap when I or one of my fellow actors finally delivered a critical line. When you're about to deliver your own must-hear pronouncement, pause both before and after you say it. You'll be able to feel the power of the pause yourself. Along with that, get used to the fact that a pause feels longer to you than to your listeners. In other words, trust that what seems like too long an interval of silence probably sounds just right to an audience.
- Ask a question, then let silence reign. In a presentation of any length, you should be asking your audience questions. With some of those questions you may actually want an answer; others will be rhetorical questions designed to get your listeners to think. In either case, asking your audience a question will perk up their ears, and in the slight pause that ensues, will refocus their attention.
- Use silence to control the pace of your presentation. Audiences easily spot a nervous speaker. Anxious talkers often proceed at a nonstop pace without pausing. That's a dead giveaway concerning stage fright. Leaders among speakers, on the other hand, control the timing of a speech. They do so by making their argument at exactly the appropriate pace. So pausing sufficiently will both demonstrate confidence and allow your audience to view you as that kind of speaker.