Public Speaking Tips - More on the Power of the Pause

The writer at sixty; no grey hair yet

Nature blessed me.  I didn't begin to turn grey until my mid seventies.
Nature blessed me. I didn't begin to turn grey until my mid seventies.

The living voice is that which sways the soul

The Roman Philosopher, Pliny the Younger said, “The living voice is that which sways the soul.” This is true, whether it be in the lyrics of a song or the words in a story or speech. So it behooves us to develop our voice to reach its maximum potential as that instrument which can “sway the soul.” Yet it is equally important to bear in mind that, even more powerful than the use of words with that living voice, is the silence which intersperses those words. For it is in the silence that the interpretation of the bulk of the message takes place. Therefore love the silence. Love the power of the pause.

'Filler noises and words definitely detract. They really 'off-putters'

When we are with friends or colleagues talking, and there is no pressure to perform, we are usually at our best when it comes to the pause. However, often our best, even in these circumstances, falls short of what it could be. If you have any doubt about this, listen – without being rude or interrupting – the conversations of people talking together on a bus or train or on the telephone. Their conversation will be filled with ‘filler’ words and phrases and those awful ‘ers, ‘ah’s’ and ‘uhms’ that we in Toastmasters schedule an assignee to pick up and bring to our attention in a typical Toastmasters’ meeting.

The writer presenting at a Toastmaster meeting - Dundas 70/2692

On the 300th Meeting of Dundas TMC, held on 11th September 2013 around 30 people in attendance, including official reps from four different Emergency Services.
On the 300th Meeting of Dundas TMC, held on 11th September 2013 around 30 people in attendance, including official reps from four different Emergency Services.

"You know what I mean?" If I did, why should I listen to you?

“Well, er, I’m don’t know, John. Er.. We’re going to the show but it’ll be pretty chaotic getting there - you know what I mean. Huh? Yes, I…er, Yes” (Conversation stops on Yes – this last being a relatively new trend)

I think you’ll get the picture. Filler words have become so normal in our everyday conversations that we not only continue to use them in our presentations to audiences; they actually increase in frequency due to our nervousness. And the reason for this is that so many people make the mistake that if we’re not actually making noises our listeners will ‘tune out.’ However, this is certainly not the case. When we finish a sentence and then pause, our listener will continue to listen. And if we stop half way through a sentence and pause, as if searching for the exact word to describe what we wish to say, our listener will listen even more intently. Moreover, they’ll appreciate our effort.

Yours truly addressing at a Toastmaster Area Competition

Taken in Parramatta Heritage Centre in 2011
Taken in Parramatta Heritage Centre in 2011

Uhms and ahs and filler words kill a presentation

So what happens when you’re in the audience and you hear a speaker blurting out those filler ‘ahs’ and ‘uhms’ and worse – those “Yesses” and “You knows” in the middle of their discourse? You think, “Well, if he thinks I know, why the hell is he telling me? Is he keeping talking so I can’t get a word in edgeways? Or is he worried that if he stops making noises I won’t listen?” Such a speaker begins to lose his audience very quickly. It is as if he were floundering, unable to figure out what to say. And perhaps he is. “So if he doesn’t know what he’s saying why should I listen?”

Ah, a pause...the speaker is thinking what he's going to say next

On the other hand, if the speaker stops and there is a pause, the listener is thinking – though it might not come across in his own minds in these words – “Ah, the speaker is being very considerate. He wants to give me the exact word I need to have so that message is thoroughly understood by me.” Immediately there is appreciation of the speaker’s intent to be precise, to bring to the listener his understanding so that the listener can understand it as he does. He’s being precise. Here is heart-to-heart communication. To quote from Jeanette and Roy Henderson’s masterful book There’s No Such Thing As Public Speaking, “Very few actions will get your Reactor’s (listener’s) attention faster or more completely than the use of a well placed pause.” And: “A moment of intentional active silence creates the most dynamic, deliberate reaction you could ever hope to achieve.”

I will repeat that: “A moment of intentional active silence creates the most dynamic reaction you could ever hope to achieve.”

The writer is proud to be a long-term Toastmaster member

Now seventy-seven, I've been a member of nine Toastmaster clubs and three Rostrum Clubs over the past four decades.
Now seventy-seven, I've been a member of nine Toastmaster clubs and three Rostrum Clubs over the past four decades.

Anticipation is created by the use of the pause

I can recall on more than one occasion in my earlier days as a public speaker – in those days where you rehearse your speech perhaps a little too much and rely on having it word-for-word perfect – suddenly and momentarily forgetting what was to come next. When that happened there was a sort of almost-panic going on inside as I sought for the next idea and with it the rehearsed phrase. This resulted in what seemed to me dreadfully long periods of silence. But you know what? The audience was never more riveted, wondering what I’d come up with. So the point I make here is that the longer the pause, the more the audience pays attention. Anticipation is created by the use of the pause – so use it!

Give 'em time to visualize it, feel it, and react to it - pause!

Oh, and initially what seems a long time to you will not seem a long time to the audience. Do not be afraid to stretch it out just that little bit more. You intuition, with practice, will tell you how long to keep it up.

To be more precise, the length of the pause needs to vary with the significance of the image you’re intending to create. Give ‘em time to visualize it, to feel it, to react to it. I am a Storyteller and I deliberately create tension, drama with the pause. For example, in my yarn, The Hoodoo Ship, which is based on the Australian aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne which, as many know, collided and sank two destroyers during her twenty-six year commission, I go about it this way.

Using dialogue between the Melbourne’s Captain, John Stephenson, and his signalman on the bridge, I say this:

“Captain, sir. Frank E Evans is now turning hard right!” (pause)

Captain Stephens looks up and sees the Evans only two hundred yards off coming right under his bows. (pause) He jumps to the voice pipe.

“Full Astern! Full astern both engines!” ( long pause)

Crash! The noise was almost indescribable et cetera.

Yours truly speaking to a typing all male Probus Club

The audience needs time to switch from one picture to another

Here, you need to give the audience time to visualize the little destroyer turning in towards the aircraft carrier. Then a jump to the captain’s perspective. The audience now have to visualize him yelling down the voice pipe to the engine room below.

So there is a change from one picture to another here. It’s a change of scene. As in a movie, the outside scene of the destroyer coming at speech, bow waves creaming back foam as it speeds from the right. Next, you move to an inside the bridge of HMAS Melbourne with the Captain at the voice pipe. So, the more distinctly different the images are from one another, the longer the pause needs to be. The audience needs time to switch from one self-created picture to another.

Few stories are as dramatic as the maiden voyage of the Titanic

Part of my audience when I presented my story, Titanic - a night to remember, on the Centenary of the Titanic disaster.  Location, Blacktown Workers Club.
Part of my audience when I presented my story, Titanic - a night to remember, on the Centenary of the Titanic disaster. Location, Blacktown Workers Club.

Reading aloud as if to another person is the secret

But to get back to filler words - How can we drop the use of those filler words and develop the effective use of the pause? The answer to this was first brought home to me many years ago with the reading of a book on Public Speaking written by a famous New Zealand political figure who was apparently known for his powerful presentations. His simple advice was this: ‘Read out aloud a passage from a book or magazine for ten to fifteen minutes daily as if you were conveying that reading to a listener. After a while, it will become your automatic way of speaking to a listener.’ My advice to you is to do this. The filler words will gradually drop away. The pauses will become natural to the content of the material you’re reading. After a few months, the habit will have become ingrained, and you’ll be well on the way of being able to use ‘the magic of the pause.’

Begin to deliberately use thos pauses

When you first begin your journey as a speaker the use of pauses will be a challenge. Do the simple Reading-exercise regime I’ve described to you above. Reading out aloud is hardly difficult. Take up that challenge. Begin to deliberately use those pauses. After a while they will become your norm. This will be your style. This will be the way you do it. Once mastered, you’ll be on your way to being the best speaker you can be.


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zduckman 2 years ago

Great Hub....thank you. I will use this as I embark on my new career in Real Estate

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