The thing about public speaking is this: it’s an art. Think of it this way: Your final presentation is your painting. And your facial expression, hand gestures, and your tone of voice are the colors, shapes, and overall composition.
Much like your facial expression, hand gestures, and your tone of voice, your pauses are also an important element that determines your final public presentation. Pauses in public speaking are just like that white space in paintings. You can’t see them the way you see color, shapes, and overall composition. But you know they’re there and they have something to contribute to the overall public presentation and painting.
So, the next question is this: What exactly is that role pauses play in public speaking?
Why Are Pauses Important in Public Speaking: Its Power!
You can use the power of the pause during a public presentation in many ways. Here are five ways pauses can help your speech:
1. They help emphasize an important point
Pauses are great for getting people’s attention. That’s especially true if, well, you’ve been talking a whole lot. Since members of your audience become used to hearing you say something during your presentation, that instance where you don’t say something stands out.
That said, you can leverage pauses to get your message across more effectively. When you’re about to say something they need to really understand, stop talking for a while for that dramatic effect and then speak again.
However, according to Jay Miller, a Toronto-based public speaking coach, you shouldn’t just pause for the sake of pausing in these instances. When you stop talking, you need to breathe, too. That breath, after all, is what creates the anticipation, not the dead air.
According to Miller, when you pause and you don’t do anything, your audience will only end up thinking you just froze on stage and forgot what you were supposed to do in the first place. Watch his interesting video above to learn more about this idea.
2. They help mark a change in subject
Pauses can help organize your public presentation. Think of pauses as periods in an article. If a period marks a change in thought in the written word, a pause marks a change in subject in the oral presentation.
Having these types of pauses in your public presentation can benefit both you and members of your audience. Your pause can give you and your audience time to shift mental gears.
For your audience, it can also mark the start of writing on a new document. This is the case if they’re taking down notes on your lecture with their laptop or writing on a new page. So, they end up with organized notes from your lecture, with headings and subheadings and all, and not just scribbled notes on a screen or a piece of paper that are difficult to understand.
3. They are good alternatives to filler words
Pauses can help ensure the beauty of your speech, too. You can use them to ensure you don’t overuse those filler words you typically use when you’re speaking before an audience. Remember, no one wants to hear too many “uhms,” “ahms,” and “likes” in a speech. If you do this, your audience will only think you lack self-confidence. Some people might even question your competence to teach a topic if they perceive you this way.
So, when delivering your speech, incorporate those pauses where you were supposed to include a filler word. You should have practiced this beforehand of course. You need to do this many times so that it becomes part of your system before you go on stage.
You don’t have to worry about what your audience will think of you when you make that pause. There’s nothing to worry about in the first place. When you use pauses instead of the “uhms” and “ahms,” for your audience, you’re not that nervous speaker who doesn’t know what to say. You’re the calm and collected speaker who thinks before he or she speaks.
4. They help the audience understand your message better
You can use pauses to help your audience comprehend better what you’re telling them in the first place. After all, people can only understand so much in a short span of time. They’re not sponges that can just take in concepts without pause. They need a break to get their thoughts together.
Besides, if you let them sit there for 50 minutes or so, and let them hear you talk without stopping, you’ll only make them uninterested in what you have to say. According to researchers from Youngstown State University, Florida State University and the University of Texas at Austin in their article published on IDEA, that’s exactly what happens in the classroom when the students just passively sit and listen. They get bored and no longer want to learn. They only end up wanting to finish the class to pass the test and get a good grade overall.
5. They help you collect your thoughts
Pauses can help you think about what you have to say next. Because let’s face it. Even if you think you’ve memorized your script to the letter, or at least just the basic outline (because you’re actually not supposed to sound like a robot when speaking in public), you can’t possibly say everything right without stopping from start to finish. At one point you’re going to forget something.
Sure, you can continue talking instead of pausing to collect your thoughts in these instances. But if you do that just for the sake of not having that so-called dead air, you’ll only end up losing your train of thought even more. And in the end, well, you might just not remember what you were supposed to say. If you never remember it, you might end up not finishing your speech at all.
So, use those pauses to your advantage. If you suddenly forget what was next on your script, take a pause and collect your thoughts. If you still don’t remember what you were supposed to say and you brought some notes with you, it’s okay to go back and look at them.
Your audience understands that in public speaking, things like those happen. Just make sure you don’t pause for too long.
How Long Should Your Pauses Be?
We’ve talked about how pauses can be good for your public presentation. They help emphasize an important point, help mark a change in subject, and are good alternatives to filler words. They can also help your audience understand your message better and help you collect your thoughts when you’re lost.
But all these are not to say that you can take your sweet time without talking in a public presentation. There’s still a pause that’s allowed and one that’s, well, just awkward. And the pauses you can use to embellish your presentation and help you deliver your speech effectively are, of course, those that fall under the first category.
That said, what is an acceptable pause length during a presentation? Well, the truth is, even the experts have not agreed on a number. According to Anett Grant, author of various public speaking books and chief executive officer of Executive Speaking Inc., it shouldn’t be more than two seconds. For Noah Zandan, Author, CEO, and co-founder of Quantified Communications, a company that helps people strengthen the way they communicate, a pause that lasts a little bit longer, up to five seconds, is still acceptable.
Based on what we’ve learned about the uses of pauses in communication (that it can be used to collect our thoughts, in particular), I’d say four to five seconds are okay. I think that’s reasonable enough time for us to collect our thoughts and get right back on track. You can, however, see for yourself which one is the acceptable range for you. If you’re comfortable with seven seconds then so be it. Just make sure the audience is comfortable with it, too.
Why Are Pauses Important in Public Speaking: Bottom Line
Pauses are a critical public speaking element. You should pay attention to them, too, in much the same way you pay attention to (or should, at least) your tone of voice, facial expressions, and hand gestures. Used the right way, pauses can help embellish your presentation and help organize your speech. They can help you deliver your message more effectively.
You learned five ways you can use pauses to your advantage. Since you’re just starting out, I suggest you use pauses in one or two ways first during your public presentations. Once you get the hang of those, try to incorporate three or four ways from this article, until you get to incorporate them all.
Just make sure you don’t overdo the pauses. Although there’s no ballpark figure for what is considered an acceptable number in a speech, you can get a feel for what the acceptable range is once you start practicing for your speech. Record yourself so you can hear what’s okay and what isn’t afterwards.
Harness the power of the pause and you’ll elevate your public presentations to a whole new level, really.
For more resources to develop your public speaking skills while you are in the comforts of your own home, please check the articles Online Resources for Public Speaking and Where Can I Learn Public Speaking. If you would like to leverage the best presentation software for your next big speaking engagement please read the article 'Best Presentation Technology tools'.