Public Speaking 103: The Sound of Silence

A good speaker relies on a big box of tools. Humor, stories, gestures and such. Without these tools, speeches will be a monotonous, boring and kill-all-living-things kind of an exercise.

Amongst that tool box is a precious gem. The Pause. The Sound Silence. Probably the single most effective tool there is in a speaker’s tool kit.

The normal tendency of any speaker or presenter is simply to speak. To spill words. A copious supply of words. That often means he has to keep talking to cover all the material one has prepared. Bad for the audience. And even worse for the speaker.

Bad for the audience for several reasons:

  1. The monotonous drone of the speaker’s voice becomes boring and at some point annoying. End result is most people mentally check out, feel sleepy or simply leave.
  2. There is no time to catch up with what the speaker is saying. The speaker is spewing out point after point with no consideration about whether the audience gets it or not.

Bad for the speaker for several reasons:

  1. When speaking non-stop, the speaker has to rely on visual clues or notes to keep up with every single point he has to make. Unfortunately, not every point can be noted on a slide or notes. A few have to be called from memory. When spoken without a pause, the speaker has no time for memory recalls. This could be disastrous, even more so when there are no notes or visual clues. And missing to say some good stuff.
  2. By not giving pauses, the speaker is not allowing time for the audience to understand the points he is trying to make. That increases the chasm between him and the audience. Bigger disaster.

Pauses are the opportunities where the speaker gets to sound intelligent. Sure sounds like an oxymoron. But true. Speaking without pausing is akin to verbal diarrhea; gross every which way. Real intelligence shows up, when the speaker pauses every so often before continuing his speech.

So, the typical format would be to speak, pause, speak, pause and so on.

While there are layers and sophistication in pausing, here are some thumb rules to follow:

  1. Get comfortable with pausing during your speech. This is the secret. The speaker needs to get used to pausing in his head before he can actually use it in his speech. It takes courage to pause. And that courage happens in the head – getting used to it.
  2. Pause before and after making a profound statement. A key point. Something significant. Such pauses, warn the audience that something important is about to be said and prepares them to listen more carefully. And after the statement is made, the pause allows them to understand and take in what was just said.
  3. Pause when you have to transition; when making a shift from topic A to B.
  4. Pause to collect your thoughts together. Works both for you and the audience.
  5. Vary the length of the pauses based on the weight of the point being made. For more serious statements, give longer pauses thereby signifying the heaviness of the statement made and the time to understand it.

The word of caution here is to use pausing effectively. Used inappropriately, most audiences will confuse pausing with forgetting. You don’t want the audience to think you just forgot what to say next.

In closing, here is a Mark Twain classic:

“The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”

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