July 3, 2020

Pausing – the secret technique that few speakers understand or use

A bear walks into the bar and goes up to the bartender. The bartender asks “what will you have?” The bear responds “I’ll have a vodka…………… on the rocks”. The bartender says “okay, vodka on the rocks, but why the big pause?”. The bear says “I don’t know, I’ve always had them.”

I am a strong believer that pauses are an under-utilized technique in presentations. I see it all the time in beginning and experienced speakers – they use pauses but do not fully understand how to utilize it to its complete strength. Here, in my decade of experience speaking at and outside of Toastmasters, is what I consider a guide to the pause.

Use it before something important that you want the audience to pay attention to

For example, “the most disruptive technology that currently exists is….. blockchain”. The pause is something unexpected. The audience, if they were not paying attention before or if they were on their phones will suddenly pay attention again. The silence is jarring. It’s also a great way to signal to the audience that what you are about to say is very important and that it is something that they should listen to.

Think about it this way, have you ever attended a class where the professor has not arrived yet and everybody is going through small talk and then all of a sudden the professor comes in and there is a sudden silence that ripples throughout the classroom. It’s different and it gives people pause, which is why it’s such a powerful technique.

Pause for humour

Comedians have the timing perfected over years and years of experience. New speakers tend to tell jokes, get to the punchline and then pause for only one or two seconds before delivering the punchline. Do you want to know a simple way of making a joke funnier without years of practice or training? Count to a specific number in your head the next time you tell a joke, but before you share the punchline. I’ve been there and I know how long it must feel when you are up in front of an audience and counting in your head, but to the audience, it is actually not that long at all.

I remember a humorous speaker who shared his pause technique while delivering a humorous speech. Before the first punchline, he counted to three. Before the second punchline, he counted to five. Before the biggest punchline, he counted to seven seconds! Does that sound like a freakishly long time? Yes it does. How long is that to the audience though? Not as long as you think.

Pause after you have said something important

This works in conjunction with pausing before something important. If you give an important statement or takeaway ‘room to breathe’, you can give an air of importance to a sentence to the audience. Again, the pause is there to make sure that the audience pays attention to what you are saying so if you are pausing after something important, it’s a good strategy to repeat what you just said so that the audience really gets it.

“the technology of the future is blockchain….. yes. I believe that the technology of the future is blockchain”

Pause for confidence

Who is comfortable with silence? Only those speakers that are confident. There are lots of ways to fake or show confidence while you are speaking but one of the best ways is to be comfortable with silence. Pausing, even without having something important to say, lets the audience know that you are a confident speaker and that you are comfortable with silence. Silence is okay! And the great thing about being silent is that you are not saying crutch words like “so” or “uhh”.

Another great technique that I’ve seen is ending speeches with a pause. Just before you are about to end with a final takeaway (pausing before something important), take a longer pause, stand there, look at the audience, take in the silence and then end with your final thought.

How can you start using pauses?

The next time you are practicing or presenting a speech, experiment with the length of your pauses. Try counting to three, five or seven the next time you tell humorous stories and see what effect it has on the laughter and entertainment of your audience. Be comfortable with silence in the next conversation you have with a friend. Try not to always feel the need to fill in silences with words, questions or random observations. When there is a silence or lull in the conversation, step back for a second and let others fill the void for you.

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