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Silence is Golden: How to Use Pauses Effectively in Public Speaking

Silence is golden or how to use pauses in public speaking.Do you know how to employ the power of the pause? Discover how and when you should be using this vital public speaking tool!

Did you ever consider what a powerful tool silence is in public speaking?

Using pauses and employing the power of silence is one way to raise your presentations from the mundane to the exceptional. You needn’t take just my word for it. Neuroscience gives us some interesting evidence of this effect. 

More about that in a moment.

Need to be a calmer and more focused speaker? To be comfortable enough to employ silence effectively in public speaking, you need to exercise maximum control. Discover my tips for displaying total stage presence and confidence. Download my free cheat sheet, “10 Ways to Stay Fully Focused when Speaking.”

Let’s explore the necessity of this seemingly humble public speaking tool.

The Four Important Uses of Pauses in Public Speaking

The performance aspects of public speaking offer us a clear roadmap of three “oases”—places of refreshment and recuperation—we should be providing in our speeches and presentations. Without these stopping places, your narrative may begin to feel for your audience like a long, dry trek across a featureless terrain.

  1. To separate the main sections of your talk. Listeners can only hold so much information in their thinking brain before they begin to experience an overload. (More about that in a moment too.) You need a significant pause between your intro and the body of your talk, between each main point, and between the body and the conclusion. Pauses at each of these places tell the audience, “Here comes something new,” and in effect, allow them to press the Reset button in their brain. Here are 12 foolproof ways to start a speech that will engage listeners immediately.
  1. To let vital information sink in. Speaking in public tends to make us, if not anxious, then at least nervous and self-conscious. That’s the cue for our bodies to release adrenaline, which tends to speed us up. So it’s common for speakers to fly through everything they’re saying, including critically important points. (If fear of public speaking is an issue for you, visit our Fearless Speaking page to discover how we can help you banish stage fright forever!) This is a place where a pause is truly your friend. Use it to give your listeners a moment for the vital information you just delivered to sink in.
  1. As transitions. One of the places where speakers experience problems is creating natural and organic transitions in their presentations. We should always bear in mind that although we know how the ideas in our talk lead logically, one to the other, our audience doesn’t. One thing that can help in this regard, for instance, is downloading my free cheat sheet on the 25 words or phrases to avoid in speeches and presentations. Pausing as you transition lets listeners understand that the last chunk of information you gave them is about to be linked to whatever is coming. When it all fits together in their minds, your story is infinitely easier to follow and—importantly—retain after you’ve finished speaking.
  1. To aid the working memory of your listeners. Speaking of chunks of information, here’s where brain research reinforces the importance of the pause. In answering the question, “Does the language of silence have any neurological value?” researchers have found that speakers who don’t pause between phrases negatively affect listeners’ comprehension![1] Our short-term working memory can only hold a few pieces of information, and for only around 30 seconds at a time. Pausing is a vitally important way to keep your audience with you—engaged, informed, and enjoying the experience.

People making the 'silence' or 'shush' gesture due to the power of silence.

Tapping Into the Power of Silence

Apart from the practical reasons given above for using pauses in public speaking, there’s something much more fundamental going on here. It has to do with the relationship of sound and silence. 

As an actor and speech coach who uses theater-based techniques for public speaking training, I was always struck by the sheer power a dramatic pause, at just the right moment, could achieve in a play. I'm talking about those moments of recognition, surprise, or shock that a playwright and actor together could summon. Indeed, at moments like that silence can have the power of a thunderclap. There are times, in fact, when silence as part of a performance can inspire awe.

Nature itself teaches us the summoning power of silence. We talk about “The calm before the storm.” And when the everyday sounds of, say, a forest go silent, the hairs on the back of our neck rise as we realize something out of the ordinary is happening. 

Public speakers have the same tool at their command, for exactly the same effect. Why let that vital information you’re about to convey be swallowed by delivering it without a pause? Set it apart, by silence that creates anticipation beforehand and recognition afterwards—in other words, frame it with silence! 

Stock photo of red-headed woman on beach.

Two More Ways Pauses Help You In a Speech

You're always most effective with your audience when you have a conversation with them. Adrenaline, on the other hand, has a tendency to speed up everything you do, including your speech. Remembering to pause gets you into the conversational dynamic with your listeners—and that’s when you sound your best. Think of it as facilitating the dialogue with your audience. 

Finally, the people in the seats need to recognize you as the leader in the room or auditorium. They must have confidence in all of your abilities, including your ease and skill at leading an audience. In other words, they're finely attuned to your level of confidence. Confident speakers deliver their talks at exactly the pace they want them to proceed. They're not rushed or anxious in front of an audience—instead, they look comfortable and completely in control. Here's more on the 7 leadership qualities of great speakers.

Be the speaker who delivers a well-paced presentation, with frequent and refreshing pauses. Your audience in turn will linger not on your content but on your credibility, confidence, and effectiveness.

[1] L.J. MacGregor, M. Corley, D.I. Donaldson, “Listening to the Sound of Silence: Disfluent Silent Pauses in Speech Have Consequences for Listeners,” Neuropsychologia, Dec. 2010, 48(14):3982-92, epub Oct. 13, 2010. Cited in Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman, Words Can Change Your Brain (New York: Plume, 2012), 69.

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