Are you using the power of silence? Here's how to employ pauses in public speaking to look and sound like a leader!
Did you ever consider what a powerful tool silence is in public speaking?
Using pauses and silence effectively is an easy way to raise the interest and impact of your presentations. And you needn’t take my word for it. Neuroscience gives us some interesting evidence of this effect.
More about that in a minute.
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First, let's take a closer look at this humble yet powerful public speaking tool.
Four Ways to Use the Power of the Pause
Speeches can be lengthy, and even short talks can be complex. So you need to provide audiences with an occasional oasis, i.e., a place of refreshment and recuperation. Without these stopping places, your narrative may begin to feel like a long trek across a featureless desert.
Here are four additional reasons why using the power of the pause will help your talks.
- To separate the main segments. Listeners can only hold so much information in their minds before experiencing overload. (More about that in a moment too.) You therefore need a significant pause in these places: between your intro and body, between main points, and between the body and conclusion. Doing that tells the audience: “Here comes something new.” That in turn allows them to press the "Reset" button in their brain. Here are 12 foolproof ways to start a speech that will hook your audience.
- To let something sink in. The self-consciousness and anxiety that comes with public speaking releases adrenaline, which tends to make us speak faster. So we may fly through our talk, allowing important points to whizz by too fast for listeners to grasp them. (If you have fear of public speaking, visit my Fearless Speaking page to discover how to banish your stage fright.) Here's a place where a pause is truly your friend, allowing listeners a moment for the important thing you just said to sink in.
- As transitions. Creating natural and helpful transitions between the main segments of your talks is always a challenge. Remember: while we know how the elements of our presentations fit together, the audience doesn't, and it's our job to make that clear. In addition to knowing words and phrases to avoid in speeches and presentations, you need to come up with transitions that help keep audiences in the loop. Pauses help immensely here. They help listeners understand that whatever you just said is about to be linked to what's coming next. Your individual points become easier to follow and retain.
- To help listeners stay tuned. Speaking of retaining chunks of information, here’s where brain research reinforces the importance of the pause. After asking “Does the language of silence have any neurological value?” researchers found that speakers who don’t pause negatively affect listeners’ comprehension! Our short-term memories can only hold a few pieces of information, and for only around 30 seconds. Pausing is a vitally important way to keep your audience with you—engaged, informed, and enjoying the experience.
Tapping Into The Power of Silence
Apart from the practical reasons given above for pausing in public speaking, there’s something more fundamental going on. 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've always been struck by the sheer power of a dramatic pause. I'm talking about those moments of recognition in a play, movie, or conversation that can surprise, shock, or feel like a detonation. In fact, silence as part of a spoken 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 make us feel that something out of the ordinary is about to happen.
Public speakers can use the same tool, for the same effect. Why let that powerful point you're about to make be swallowed by throwing it into the general stream? Or equally bad, filling the moment by not knowing how to stop saying um, uh, like, and so on? Pause! Set what you're saying apart with silence that combines anticipation and drama. Let the moment gather power. Frame it and focus it with silence.
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, as we already know, tends to speed up your speech. By pausing, you stay within the conversational dynamic. And that’s when you sound at your best. Think of it as facilitating a dialogue with your audience.
Finally, listeners need to recognize you as the principal actor in this drama. They must have complete confidence in your ability to lead an audience. So they're finely attuned to your level of confidence, including how you pace your talk. You mustn't appear rushed or anxious, but comfortable and always in control. Here's more on the 7 leadership qualities of great speakers.
Be that speaker: the one who delivers a well-paced speech with frequent refreshing pauses. Your audience will linger not on your content, but on your credibility, confidence, and leadership.
 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.
This article was originally published in 2016. It is updated here.
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