Mark Twain once said, “The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”
I agree with the famous author and I have a hunch you do as well. Pauses are highly effective when you want to capture and maintain attention.
Yet few presenters seem to have learned and practiced the art of pausing sufficiently.
In my work, I often see presenters rushing through their presentation in a way that reminds me of a jockey on a racehorse. A presentation, however, isn’t the Kentucky Derby and speed isn’t the most decisive factor.
I consider an outstanding presenter more like an equestrian show jumper. The objective of this sport is not just speed but also form and technique. Successful show jumpers need lots of variety. Depending on the situation, they need to speed up, slow down, and even pause briefly before tackling the next part of the course. Just like effective presenters.
Placing well timed pauses in your speech will not only allow listeners to absorb your words and assign meaning to them, it also adds credibility and makes you appear confident and in control.
When to add pauses?
There are many opportunities from the beginning to the end of your presentation to add meaningful pauses. Below are a few examples.
Let the audience absorb your talking points
The most obvious place for a pause is after an important talking point. Whenever you want your audience to really consider an idea, use a pause.
Example: “A well placed pause in speech is one of the most important tools for effective presenters. <PAUSE> Whenever you…”
While we can listen faster than we can possibly speak, our brains still need time to process the incoming sentences. When we rush from one message to the next, we cut short the time the brain needs to assign meaning to our words.
Cue something important
Pauses are just as effective before in important talking point as they are after.
Example: “A highly effective tool for effective presenters <PAUSE> is a well placed pause. It…”
Adding a brief pause before the point you want the audience to remember signals that something important is coming and increases the attention of your listeners.
Change of topic
When you move from one topic to the next, add a longer pause to clearly separate the two blocks of information.
Example: “As we have seen, pauses are a tremendously effective tool for a presenter to deliver memorable messages. Messages that stick. <PAUSE> Another effective tool is repetition. Repetition lets…”
Pauses in between topics can be slightly longer and often offer an opportunity to move to a different location, if you are presenting on stage, or to take a sip of water.
When you ask your audience questions, even if you don’t want them to answer out loud, you need a sufficiently long pause to give the members in your audience enough time to answer your question internally.
These pauses can easily stretch for a few seconds. While this may seem a long time for you as the presenter, to your audience it will feel natural.
Whenever you answer a question from the audience, even if you have heard it many times before, pause briefly before responding. This shows confidence and also respect for the person asking the question.
Pausing before answering a question demonstrates that you are willing to give a thoughtful answer instead of jumping on the answer with a canned response.
A few tips to improve your own pausing
- Watch politicians deliver important speeches. You don’t even need to pay attention to the content. Simply focus on the delivery and pay close attention to the placement and duration of the pauses.
- If you have a script, let punctuation be your guide. Make mini pauses for commas, longer ones for periods, and even longer pauses for paragraphs. It also helps to clearly mark in your script any meaningful pause you want to make.
- Record yourself while delivering your presentation. When you listen to your recording, only focus on the pauses. Are they placed well? Are they timed well?
- Get feedback. Ask a trusted source to listen to your presentation and provide specific feedback to your pauses. Or take the opportunity to practice your presentation at an upcoming Pitch in the Zone where you’ll get valuable feedback from professional coaches and presentation enthusiasts.
Use pauses deliberately; well placed and well timed. Your audience will thank you by remembering your specific talking points long after you wrapped up.