The Power of Silence

monkey reflects in Bali.jpg

Ahh, summer. A time to slow down, pause, reflect. It inspired me to share some insight on pausing.

In my fifteen years of coaching, I have discovered the most underutilized aspect of presentation technique is…The Pause. This doesn’t just mean slowing down and not rushing through your speech, but rather pausing as a deliberate action. Incorporating purposeful pauses into your speaking allows you time to collect your thoughts, gives your audience a chance to fully comprehend what you’re saying, and makes you sound like you have some gravitas. Remember: powerful people rarely rush. You shouldn’t, either. 

Consider Winston Churchill. Churchill won a Nobel Prize in Literature for his speech making. One of his favorite tricks: he marked up his speeches with delivery cues, most notably leaving “white space to remind himself to pause.”

Try this pause exercise with a piece of a notable Churchill speech. First, read through it with no pauses. Then read through it again, adding pauses at the | | (Note: the punctuation is removed)
 

  1. We shall fight on the beaches we shall fight on the landing grounds we shall fight in the fields and in the streets we shall fight in the hills we shall never surrender.
     
  2. We shall fight on the beaches | | we shall fight on the landing grounds | | we shall fight in the fields and in the streets | | we shall fight in the hills | | we shall never surrender.

 
You can find the audio of Churchill saying these words here. Note where he adds pauses, and the effect that has on you as a listener. Composer John Cage mastered the use of silence with his 4’33 Concerto. This one is a must listen… trust me!

Pausing keeps audiences engaged just as much as it helps them process and understand what you’re saying to them. They are hearing this information for the first time and need you to allow them a moment to “get it,” or as I like to say, “to let the point land.” If you don’t give them that moment, you’ll lose them.

There are two main pause types to enhance audience understanding: the Anticipation and the Amplification. A long pause before an important idea or climactic keyword is… the anticipation pause; it heightens suspense. A long pause after an idea or phrase underscores what has just been said… this is the amplification or reflection pause… 

My favorite pause is the one before you speak. You’re at the podium in front of the room, or seated on the panel about to answer a tough question… and just before you are about to respond... you take a moment... and... Pause. Hello, gravitas. 

There are some bad pauses, yes, like those awkward ones mid... sentence, but that… is another… post. Take some time to play with pauses in the following phrases. Read these first sentences with no pauses:
 
   a. When Ann had eaten the dog ran away. (Yum, dog is delicious)
 
   b. Hank her date said Bob was quite boring. (Who you calling boring?!)
 
   c. Kevin said the president is ignorant. (Who’s the ignorant one?)
 
Now, try reading them with pauses at the | |, taking note of how the pause placement transforms the meaning of the sentences:
 
   a.  When Ann had eaten | | the dog ran away. 

   b.  Hank | | her date | | said Bob | | was quite boring. 

   c.  Kevin | | said the president | | is ignorant. 
 

Further Reading:

Winston Churchill: http://www.npr.org/2012/07/14/156720829/winston-churchills-way-with-words
Pauses:https://www.boundless.com/communications/textbooks/boundless-communications-textbook/delivering-the-speech-12/effective-vocal-delivery-64/pauses-256-10661/
John Cage: http://rosewhitemusic.com/piano/writings/silence-taught-john-cage/

 

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