I often tell my students that you can tell how experienced a speaker is by how she uses pauses. Beginning speakers are scared of silence; they are afraid to stop talking for fear that they’ll lose their place in the presentation or the audience will feel uncomfortable. But accomplished speakers know that pauses, when used properly and placed carefully, hold great power. In fact, former president Barack Obama made use of pauses to establish his signature cadence. That’s because he knows that there is power in the pause.
Just imagine your favorite song without all of the space between notes. The notes would run together into a jumbled mess. That’s because part of the music is in the space, in the pauses. Think of the way you anticipate the chorus of a song because of the silent build up right before it. Communication, emotion, and meaning still happens in the pause. A pause is not inactive or empty.
That’s true in public speaking as well, so we need to learn to use silence to benefit our presentations and our audience. In order to do that, we need to understand that our brains need space to more efficiently process information. A study published in the Southern Medical Journal identifies noise pollution as a “modern plague” and outlines its effect on our health. Our brains crave reprieve from noise because noise is now the cultural norm. So when speakers carry on without making use of pauses, the audience can get overwhelmed or bored.
So where should you place pauses in a presentation?
Immediately following a strong or important statement. Intentional space after one of these statements will allow those last words to echo in the minds of the audience, reinforcing its importance and weight. The space allows the audience to chew on those words for a minute and fully digest what you’ve said. If you don’t pause, the audience moves with you to the next thing.
During times of transition. Think about everyday normal conversation. It has a natural ebb and flow. If you were to chart a basic conversation, you would find that pauses or silence will naturally fall between topic changes or transitions. Speakers can use this natural rhythm in their presentations as well. Give the audience a little space so their brains can more effectively transition to the next subject.
Following any response from the audience. If the audience laughs, you need to give them time to do so. Audience feedback is an important part of the communication process. When the audience responds appropriately to something a speaker says, that’s proof that they are engaged. If a speaker continues to talk over audience feedback, the audience will begin to feel that their input is not valued, and they will stop responding altogether.
When you’ve lost the audience’s attention. A moment of silence is one of the quickest ways to get the audience’s attention back if you’ve lost it. If you notice audience members seem distracted or bored, you might consider pausing for a moment. When the talking in a presentation stops, audience members instinctively want to figure out why, and so a well-placed pause can grab the audience’s attention.
You can plan and practice these first two uses of pauses, and you should. I’ve even gone so far as to suggest that my students write “pause” or highlight blank space on their notecards or outline where they want to remember to include some intentional silence. When you practice pausing, it will become part of the rhythm of your presentation, the same way it fits into the rhythm of a song. While you can’t know exactly when the audience will provide feedback or become distracted, you should be prepared to pause if they do.
As you listen to speakers you admire, pay attention to how they use pauses and to how those pauses affect you as a listener. Then, strive to emulate that in your own speaking. For more information on how to improve your presentation skills, check out our online course at PresentationMentor.com.