How pauses add power to your public speaking

Like a musical rest, the pause enhances—by the absence of sound—what has preceded it and what is to follow. It also affords your audience a chance to process and respond to your ideas.

Pauses are both powerful and necessary.

They’re powerful because they show strength on the part of the speaker—the speaker has the confidence to let her words stand for a length of time rather than compulsively filling in those moments with sounds.

They’re necessary simply because the listener needs time to hear what’s been said, respond to it and file it away under either “hogwash” or “genius.”

Beyond that, there’s an implicit courtesy in a pause. A pause indicates that the speaker cares about that audience’s response. A pause implies—indeed, initiates—a conversation.

Great speakers include the audience in the speech by pausing to show that they’re relying on the feedback loop that audiences offer and that they care about how the audience is reacting.

I once watched a famous speaker give a speech in a manner that completely failed to involve the audience.

He rushed his opening—blurting something like, “How is everyone today?”—and then jumped instantly into the substance of this talk. There was no pause to indicate he was interested in the answer, so the audience inferred that he didn’t care about them.

A speaker who followed him (and who happened to be a coachee) had been well schooled in the importance of focusing on the audience. He waited a moment after asking a similar opening question, and he included the audience in many real ways throughout.

The result? My speaker rated more highly than the famous one. Comments from the audience included remarks such as “(Speaker B) seemed much more involved with us than (Famous Speaker A).” And, “it felt like a real conversation.”

In debates or on talk shows, people constantly interrupt each other, talk over one another and seem to ignore what the moderators are asking or what the other person is saying. That sort of “debate” insults audience members’ intelligence and makes them feel unimportant.

We are taught at any early age about the politeness of listening to other people before responding. It’s essential for a conversation.

Pauses allow what you’re saying—and what the other person is saying—to sink in. Pauses build suspense. Pauses engender the sharing of emotions. Indeed, pauses are at the heart of successful communication.

As the great jazz player said, “It’s not the notes; it’s the space between the notes” that makes for great music.

A version of this article originally appeared on Public Words.

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