We often hear well-intentioned encouragement “use more pauses” and “pause longer” and the compliment “I really liked your use of pauses!”
As I demonstrate in my workshops, pausing more and longer is not enough, “I always… enjoy the… aroma of… a beautiful spring… day. It makes me… feel as fresh… as a… daisy!” By this time, participants are smiling and I ask, “What’s wrong? I paused more. I paused longer. What is the problem?”
Most people are challenged to describe what wasn’t working for them as they listened to me. They fidget, look at each other, smile, look at me until someone hesitates at an answer, “It seemed… uh… off, somehow. It didn’t flow. Your words didn’t match. You paused at the wrong time. It wasn’t natural.”
If we race through a speech, it doesn’t work. The audience can’t keep up. If we plod through a speech, it doesn’t work. The audience drifts off. If we pause after the “wrong” word, it confuses the audience. Too long or too short, still not right. How do we get it “right?”
There is no “right” in the sense of “right and wrong” or “correct and incorrect.” There is congruent and incongruent. As of this writing, I noticed that I didn’t yet write an article on congruence. I will. For now, congruence is when all of the words, voice, facial expressions, hand gestures, body language and use of space in three dimensions come together so that the audience understands the intended ideas and is unaware of the speaker’s delivery. With a bad actor, you are painfully aware that they are acting; with a great actor, you are unware of the acting, as if the actor and the character are one.
How to cause pauses to occur in our speeches is partly answered by what happens during the silence.
What you are doing during pauses:
- listening with the audience (observing them)
- giving the audience time to absorb and respond
- getting a prop
What the audience is doing during pauses:
- listening with you (observing you)
While silence is literally the time when we are without sound, it isn’t quite enough to just stop talking anytime as I demonstrated with inappropriately timed pauses. Random silence confuses. Silence needs to occur just after the words or syllables that carry the meaning so that the audience has time to respond to its meaning.
Pausing is facilitated by word sequence, placing the power words so that you can pause after them. Consider the following sentences:
- The mouse inside the box I opened, moved after first looking dead!
- I opened the box. Inside I found a mouse, that looked dead… until it moved!
The first sentence provides only one place to pause after the word “opened.” Try reading the sentence, pausing after other words and it just doesn’t work.
In the second line, the sequence of words and the punctuation almost demand that you pause. You might imagine yourself acting it out with hunched shoulders, wide eyes, and a look of suspense and finally, surprise. The second line might have been clearer, you getting a picture as the words went by. If it did for you, it will for your audiences too.
Comedians do this with the joke structure Setup – Pause – Punch. After the punch, any more syllables interrupt the audience’s time to laugh. In public speaking, pause after power words, the words that carry the meaning of the sentence or phrase. Pause where there would be a comma or at the end of sentences, intuiting the length of the pause based on the importance of the power word.
This contributed by my friend Helene Patry in San Diego: “when a speaker voices a short phrase that is quite saturated with meaning, they will repeat the phrase and then pause. Pausing alone in this case may not be sufficient.”
I agree! Mindful repetition gives an additional moment for the audience to really absorb what you are saying. Overdo it and you will irritate them.
At first, you might need to write your speeches fully to identify and place the power words. With practice, you will learn to instinctively speak this way. Intend to speak congruently with silence sounding out the meaning and emotion in your speeches. By doing this, you will Permit Audience (I like to say “Averyone”) to Use Silence Effectively. PAUSE.