The risks and rewards of pausing

One of the most frequent self-criticisms people make of themselves as public speakers is that they rush through their prepared message to the detriment of both clarity and comfort. While I believe people can be excessively harsh on themselves when assessing their performance, this is a fair insight.

In most cases, my advice to speakers is to slow the delivery down by inserting some pauses between points rather than to focus on consciously altering the pace of speech. That gives the speaker, who has many things to do at once, the relatively simple extra task of remembering to stop every now and then rather than to have concentrate continually on monitoring tempo when she be should focused on engaging the audience.

Actually, pauses are the speaker’s best friend even when rushing isn’t the speaker’s main fault.

Speakers need pauses to breathe. Breath keeps us alive, obviously, but under stressful conditions, when the flight or fight mechanism kicks in, the body leaps into defensive emergency behaviour. That can result in fast, shallow breathing. Terrible things happen to the voice and to mental focus without full, regular breaths. In other words, a speaker will feel better and speak better if she is prepared to pause to allow the breath to settle.

Audiences love pauses. They create the space for meaning to land. They can also add drama and suspense. The effectiveness of the pause is further enhanced if the speaker holds eye contact over the duration. Even when the speaker is pausing merely because she has been instructed to do so as an exercise – and is not driven by an authentic internal impulse – the audience frequently report that the pause/eye contact combination made the message seem more significant and more emotional. Depending on the context, the audience will go on to endow the speaker with gravitas, sensitivity or other flatteringly appropriate qualities, whether or not the speaker is aiming to demonstrate these or not. The audience is often galvanised or moved within the silence after the message rather than during the delivery of the message itself.

The very neutrality of a pause appears to provide an invaluable blank canvas on to which the audience projects a positive interpretation – as long as the speaker isn’t undermining herself in other non-verbal ways.

It seems, then, it would be a no brainer for speakers to embrace pauses when making presentations. Yet, in fact, this is something many people struggle to do. Sometimes they do indeed deliberately sabotage the pause with eye-rolling or grimaces, if only to prove the ghastly unreasonableness of my suggestion. There seems to be something about standing in silence in front of a group of staring people, even for a moment, which makes speakers deeply uncomfortable.

In exercises with my clients and students, I notice that however positively the audience responds to pauses, the speaker can find it difficult to incorporate the feedback.

So why do speakers find pausing such a challenge?

People are more used to having conversations than making presentations. These are very different modes of communication with different rules. Because we are so expert in conversations, we frequently import the rules of conversation into presentations with not such felicitous results.

In a conversation we take turns in who speaks, while in a presentation one person has an unusually long turn while the others listen. When conversing, we instinctively fill gaps between our words with “ums” and “errs” to signal to the other person that we haven’t finished and it isn’t the other person’s turn yet. This trick backfires in presentations. If we supress any natural pauses which arise over the course of a speech with conversational “ums” we begin to muddy the clarity of our argument. In the same way, a written page would be difficult to read if the layout were cluttered and without any white space relieving the blocks of text. Anyway, since audiences already know not to interrupt, the “um” merely has the negative impact of making the speaker look unconfident of the right to speak.

Even more interesting is the speaker’s perception of how long she has paused. Even when encouraged to leave a long gap, the speaker will foreshorten the pause so that for the audience it barely registers at all. When challenged, most speakers will insist that they have paused for a really long time.

I used to explain this phenomenon in the vaguest terms, opining that the experience of time in the spotlight was different to time spent in the audience. My recent reading of Claudia Hammond’s book Time Warped has finally provided me with some evidential support on the distorting effect of fear on the perception of time. In experiments where people believe themselves to be danger, time slows down for them to the extent that they will overestimate that a minute has passed when actually only 40 seconds of clock time have elapsed.

Although people making presentations are not literally in danger, their fears lead them to behave as if they are, with the same consequences for their sense of timing.

These are not easy habits to break but, with practice, speakers do get much better. Partly their sense of timing becomes better through repetition, but they can also become adept at using techniques for focusing and relaxing which correct the distortion caused by their fears.

There are many aspects to making good presentations and speeches. However, mastering this one simple but thorny trick – the pause – will create the opportunity for you to make a deeper, more positive impact on your audience.