Presentation Skills: Delivery Skills: The Power of the PauseInstead of Fumbling… Pause
Using Silence as a Powerful Tool in Speaking
The indomitable Robert Byrd, one of the true orators in the U.S. Senate, once rose in that august hall to praise the simple pause. This device, Byrd argued, was one of the essential tools used by the great Greek orators, after whom Byrd modeled his own rhetorical style. Byrd wondered aloud why public speakers did not use this device more often to raise the impact of their remarks. “Those orators,” Byrd noted, “often hesitated in the midst of a speech, not hitting immediately upon the word they wanted.” They paused deliberately, for good reason.
"There can be an art in the use of a pause. I find nothing wrong with a pause. It does not have to be filled with a you know. This phrase, like so many others,” Byrd added, “betrays a mind whose thoughts are often so disorganized as to be unutterable—a mind in neutral gear coupled to a tongue stuck in overdrive."
Fillers Weaken Our Phrases
Most speakers fill the gaps in their speech by fumbling along with meaningless filler words and phrases instead of using a simple pause. Perhaps it’s because we're uncomfortable with silence. Or because we're worried someone might, you know, jump in and, like, cut us off. Why do we use uh’s, and like’s, and you knows at all? As in, “I'm, like, uh, you know, convinced we’re on the right track.” All those fillers accomplish is to dilute what we’re saying, especially if we’re out to persuade our audience. They rob our speech of strength, often making us seem unsure or tentative.
Get Rid Of Them
Instead of using fillers, use silence. Develop your ability to use a focused pause to punctuate your speech. Here's how:
Pause when you are searching for a word. Most people “Uh” and “Uhm” when they look away to find a word. Instead, fall silent for a moment, but keep your eyes focused on the eyes of a listener. Once you get comfortable with this approach, you’ll find you think faster when you’re focused.
Take a breath. Make sure you breathe at the end of every major phrase or sentence. The benefits of this are more oxygen for your brain (good for thinking on your feet); more energy for your voice because you'll have more air for your phrases; good new breathing habits for staying cool under pressure; and finally, you’ll experience a growing comfort with pauses. Your audience will appreciate these pauses all the more if your material is complex, technical, or includes ideas that are novel or challenging.
Speak in Short Phrases. Take an article from a newspaper, for example—preferably one that advocates a point of view. An op-ed piece or editorial might do it. Better yet, pull an actual speech off the internet. Mark it where it makes sense to pause. First, whisper it/ pausing at each mark./ (Whispering is good/ because it forces you/ to use a lot of air.)/ Then, speak it out loud,/ pausing in the same way./ Do this with a different paragraph/ every day./ You will soon have taught yourself/ a valuable lesson.
Silence Is Your Ally
Pause longer than you think you should. For most of us, two or three seconds at the end of a major phrase or sentence may feel like an eternity. Our sense of time changes under pressure because, if we're speaking to a group, our rapid heart rate will convince us a second is a minute. But two or three seconds of silence is bliss to our listeners. Such a pause gives them time to digest what we've said, and lends significance and credibility to our speech.
Let us now pause to praise the pause. Silence... is golden.