I recently had dinner with friends, and one took the opportunity to get a little free advice.
She had a speech coming up. She said: “I remember something about pausing being important, but I can’t remember the details. What are the three most important ways to use pauses?”
You can’t tell friends to research your old blog posts and find the one on pauses, so I was happy to give her the answer over dessert.
It’s probably time to update my thinking on pauses, anyway. I recently reviewed a tape of a client’s speech, and the speech seemed performed, not conversational.
You can’t tell someone caught up in adrenaline to “Be conversational!” because he may believe he already is. Adrenaline makes time seem to go faster than normal, so even though the speaker doesn’t appear to be waiting for the other half of the conversation, he is—just not long enough.
Here are the most important ways to use pauses in a presentation:
1. Build pauses into your speech to convey a genuine interest in the audience.
A simple example will make this point clear: At the beginning of a speech, many speakers will ask the audience a rhetorical question or how they’re doing, but after asking the question, the speaker will quickly move on to the next point, so the question appears insincere.
It’s like a doctor asking how you are and not waiting for the answer before moving on to the next question. The inquiry seems insincere.
A conversation should never go just one way. If you want your connection to the audience to be genuine and your talk to feel like a conversation, build in pauses so audience members know you care about their response.
2. Pause at the beginning of your speech to help the audience focus.
If you insist on offering a few throat-clearing sentences at the beginning of your speech—such as, “Thanks for that great introduction,” “I’m really glad to be here,” or, “I love everything the International Belt-Tightening Association puts out”—then pause about three seconds before you begin the substance of your speech.
If you can skip the throat-clearing, do so, and simply look at the audience for those three seconds once you’re on stage and ready to begin. Those three seconds will allow the audience to focus on you and your message. That pause will also build a little drama into your opening.
3. Use pauses to make a key point.
You want your audience to hear your key points. The only way to do that is to stop talking and look into audience members’ eyes. Watch your point land. Once you see a reaction in their eyes, you’ll know you’ve gotten your point across. You’ve paused long enough and watched it land.
A version of this article originally appeared on Public Words.