“Thou shalt fill up every second of your presentation with words.”
I don’t know when this became a pervasive presentation commandment, but it’s time to break this particular stone tablet with vigor. I promise you won’t go to presentation hell; you’ll send your audience to heaven.
Pauses are important for both speakers and audiences.
Pause before you begin
A huge mistake most speakers make is that they run up on stage and launch into their speech—and then spend the rest of their stage time chasing their breath.
Never start speaking when you’re out of breath.
Walk on the stage. Pause. Breathe. Make eye contact. Smile. Take a deep breath. Begin.
There’s nothing wrong with a five-second pause before you begin your talk. It allows you to catch your breath and lets your audience transition from the person making the introduction to you, the speaker.
Ask a question, then pause
If you pose a question to the audience, even if it’s a question that is meant just for reflection, you must pause.
If you ask a question and keep right on going, it sends a potent message that you don’t care what the audience thinks.
I taught college students for over 12 years, and I got used to silence after posing a question. I could hear crickets, the clock ticking, and water dripping after asking anything. It’s uncomfortable and tension-filled, and it feels a lot longer to you than to your audience.
If you ask a question, pause at least five seconds before you begin again. If you want the audience to answer, let the pause go until someone speaks up. Someone always does.
Got data? You must pause
Do you deliver data-driven presentations? Bar charts, line graphs, pie charts—oh, my. Technical presentations are dense with content. They require a lot from the audience mentally. The audience needs time to process all the information you are giving them.
If you are explaining a complex chart or concept, finish and pause. Look out at the audience. If they look confused, pose a question. If all looks well, move on to the next data point. The pause is essential to processing and comprehension.
Transitioning between points requires a pause
Transitioning between the points of your speech is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in presentations. It’s hard for your brain to switch gears. You stumble, use the dreaded “ummmm…” or forget where you are going altogether. Don’t rush transitions. Pause. Gather your thoughts. Let the audience bask in the knowledge of your last point. Once you’ve collected your ideas, it’s time to begin again.
For fluidity’s sake, pause when you’re switching ideas.
Pause for emphasis
You’ve come to the moment. You’re emphasizing your big idea statement. It’s the take-away message. The phrase you want your audience to repeat to their friends, relatives, and anyone who missed your great presentation. Yet you rush through it like a race car driver gunning for the finish line.
When you’re speaking about your big idea or an ah-ha moment in your speech, slow down and pause after you say it. It signals to your audience that what you just said is important. They will pay closer attention.
Speakers, do not fear the pause; it is a great tool. It gives your audience a chance to process what you’re saying, as well as providing context for the most salient points.
Embrace the power of pauses in presentations.
How do you know when you need to pause? Share your thoughts (and pauses) in the comments below.
Michelle Mazur is a public speaking coach and communication expert, and she blogs at Relationally Speaking, where a version of this article originally appeared.