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How To Master The Art Of The Pause In Public Speaking

A well-placed pause can grab your audience's attention. Here are three ways to deploy one.

How To Master The Art Of The Pause In Public Speaking
[Photo: Flickr user ebrkut]

"The right word may be effective," Mark Twain once said, "but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause." Bold words for a writer—but Twain was dead-on.

In public speaking—or just about any verbal communication, really—timing is crucial. A pause can be much more than just a chance to catch your breath. Deployed the right way, it adds drama, weight, and clarity to your message. But if it's done wrong, your presentation may sound plodding or confused. Here are three ways to master the art of the pause in order to add impact.

1. Transitioning From One Idea To The Next

If you forget every other way to pause strategically, make sure you nail this one. The same way paragraph breaks work in writing, pauses mark one idea from the next when you're speaking. Think about the difference between reading a page-long paragraph versus just a few short paragraphs. Which keeps you more focused and engaged? Short paragraphs hold our attention and help us keep one thought from bleeding into the next one; long paragraphs generally don't.

In speaking, you need to use the pause when you transition from idea to idea—from speaking paragraph to speaking paragraph. Don't overdo it: Pauses should last around two seconds, so count "one, two" in your head before moving on. Not only will you help your audience stay engaged, you'll give everyone (yourself included) just enough time to mentally prepare for the next idea.

2. Controlling Your Pace

The pause is critical for keeping you at a good pace. Think of your speaking like water flowing from a faucet onto your hand. If it’s just a drip-drip, you get impatient. If it’s a powerful torrent, it can sting. You want to keep flowing at the right pace, so you feel relaxed and engaged and your listeners do, too.

Pauses can either help or hurt. If you're pausing too often or for too long between words, it’s like a drippy faucet. Your audience can get distracted and annoyed. They might check out mentally. On the other hand, if you rush headlong through your talk, your audience will pull back—too much over-caffeinated barking. But if you speak at a flowing pace, your audience stays engaged.

By pausing strategically at the end of an important sentence or thought, you can hit a rhythm that seems more natural. You'll get into a flow and keep your audience right there with you the whole time.

Photo: Flickr user Al Ibrahim

3. Creating Dramatic Contrast

Usually, when you go see a play, you experience the "fourth wall"—silently watching the events on stage as if they're real. It wasn't always like this. In classical theater, performers or a chorus would often address the audience in declaimed speeches and monologues. As audiences' tastes changed, the fourth wall solidified as a convention, offering a more intimate window onto private or otherwise unseen events—in common parlance, creating more drama.

We're watching a different yet related shift in business speaking today, away from declaimed podium speeches towards a looser, more dynamic style. And likewise, the goal is to keep audiences engaged. You can heighten the drama by breaking the rhythm of your speaking through well-placed pauses.

Suppose you're asking a rhetorical question: "Should we continue to innovate?" Rather than asking the question, immediately answering it, and continuing with your point, pause for a moment: "Should we continue to innovate? [wait a beat] . . . Of course we should continue to innovate!"

Notice how the pause heightens attention; the question hangs in the air for a moment, letting listeners anticipate what the answer may be. Now try pausing even longer. Which is better? Getting your pauses right dramatizes your communication and keeps your audience engaged.

And adding drama to your speaking by mastering the pause isn’t just about how you space your words. If you like to move when you speak, think about pausing your movement, too, right before you make a key point. As your words stop, your body does too—and your audience will pick up on that sharp break in movement. You'll grab their attention as they wait to find out what's coming next.

So, remember: Pause for punctuation, pause for pacing, and pause for a dramatic pop.

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