Inexperienced speakers HATE the idea of “dead air” when they have command of an audience.  Why are so many of us so afraid of silence?

Perhaps we fear the audience will consider us inept, or not in control of our material.  Perhaps we  think silence will reveal our little secret–that butterflies are skydiving in our stomachs and that we would rather be any place in the world other than in that room or at that podium or in front of that screen?

But learning to pause effectively when delivering a speech or presentation is a master delivery technique!  Pausing correctly gives the audience the impression that you are confident and know your stuff.

During  everyday conversations, when we pause, we are indicating that someone else can begin talking. So we instinctively resort to  filler words – “umm” . “so”,  “uh”  and “you know” – if we need to show that we have not yet finished speaking.

But when you are giving a speech or presentation, your audience is not going to talk back. These filler words are likely going to distract from the message that you’re trying to deliver.

In addition,

  1. Pauses help your audience understand you. Your audience doesn’t have the benefit of punctuation, bolding, italics, bullets, and other formatting as in written material. Pauses allow you to punctuate your spoken words, giving your listeners clues as to when one phrase, one sentence, or one paragraph ends, and the next begins.
  2. Pauses control the overall pace of your delivery.Your audience can only absorb so much information at a time.  Experts tell us that speech consists of short (0.15 seconds), medium (0.50 seconds), and long (1.50 seconds) pauses.  Read speech (speaking from written text) tends to produce only short and medium pauses, while spontaneous speech (speaking without reading) shows more frequent use of medium and long pauses. The takeaway from this information?  If you are reading a portion of your speech, try to  deliberately extend your pauses to mimic a more spontaneous speech style. This allows your audience to keep up with you!
  3. Pauses are good for you, mentally and physically. Lengthy pauses  allow you to take deep breaths, swallow, or even drink water. Not only will this aid your brain (by providing more oxygen), but your vocal quality will be enhanced by keeping your mouth and throat lubricated.
  4. Pauses help engage your audience. Using pauses gives your audience time to reflect on your words, and start making connections with their own experiences or knowledge in real time. Forming these personal connections with your content is the basis of audience engagement.
  5. Pauses help convey emotion. If used authentically, pauses can convey happiness, sadness, excitement, etc., just as they do during a conversation with a friend or family member.
  6. Pauses replace filler words. As mentioned above, excessive use of such disfluencies undermines your credibility, and signals lack of knowledge, lack of preparation, or lack of authenticity.  Using pauses is one of the best ways to stop relying on  such fillers, while still providing time for you to think of your next words.
  7. Pauses let your mind catch up to your mouth. When you are speaking, you are  performing two tasks simultaneously: internally, you are  determining what to say (and  do) next. Externally, you are projecting those words vocally, and employing body language, and other interactions with an audience.  Ideally, a speaker can build an internal  queue of words and actions  to deliver, so they’ll be ready when needed. Pausing allows time for your brain to do just that, so your mind can catch up to your mouth.

A Pause is a Pause is a Pause….

Given all the value pausing can contribute to a public speech or presentation, it’s great to have an arsenal of different functional pauses at your disposal.  Here are a few of my favorites:

The Punctuation Pause

When you are composing your speech, be liberal with your punctuation, knowing you will be using it to guide you in your delivery.  Then, as a rule of thumb, use short pauses for commas, medium pauses for periods, question marks, exclamation marks and colons, and long pauses for paragraph breaks, or to separate key points from one another.

The Look at Me! Pause

Some people call this the “power” pause,  because it is used effectively to signal to the audience that you are ready to begin your presentation and hopefully focuses their attention.  You may want to assume what speech coaches call the  power stance – legs slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and arms comfortably held at your side, and say NOTHING.  Just engage your audience with your eyes.  This enforced silence allows you  a few seconds to center yourself, take a deep breath, and confidently launch into your opening words.

The Remember This! Pause

Pauses can also be used for emphasis. Try to pause immediately before and immediately after a key word (or phrase). Together with variations in pitch, volume, and  intonation, these pauses draw attention to the key word. The preceding pause signals “listen up”, while the succeeding pause says “remember that.” Researches have found that a delay of any kind immediately before a key word helps listeners remember it.

It should be obvious and fairly natural  to pause when switching to a new slide (if you’re using visuals)  to give your audience a moment to study the projection in silence.  Simple images require only a short pause before continuing; more complicated visuals require a longer pause. When you begin speaking again, you are signalling that the focus should be back on you.

The ‘Have You Ever….?’ Pause

After you ask your audience a rhetorical question, pause for a moment. (opening with a question is a great way to begin your speech,  by the way!)  The pause stimulates your audience to engage, by directing them to think about their answer to your question. The same is true for other ways that you invite silent participation from your audience i.e. “Think for a moment about how you would feel if…” On the other hand, failure to pause after a rhetorical question can frustrate your audience. (They’ve been asked a question, and now you are rushing forward without allowing them time to think about the answer!)

The Ta-Da! Pause

If you want to up the suspense and generate some excitement, try a dramatic pause.  You can deliberately stop and gather the room’s attention before a word, a phrase, or before displaying a slide or a prop. This also works as a good cover if you accidentally get ahead of yourself or momentarily lose your train of thought. Despite your best intentions at speech preparation and moderating your pace, if your lips are locked as your brain searches for the next word, you may feel a tendency to fill the  space with a filler word — ah, er, um. Try to resist. It’s  much better to just pause until you’ve gathered yourself.

The Rimshot Pause

Professional comedians will tell you that knowing when to pause is absolutely vital in making sure the punchline to a joke doesn’t fall flat. Most will instinctively pause both before and after delivering a  humorous punch line.

  • Pause immediately before your punch line to create heightened anticipation and signal a payoff.
  • Pause immediately after your punch line (think of the “ba-dum-bum” rimshot” a backup drummer uses) to allow your audience to release their laughter. Extend the pause as long as the audience is laughing.  Otherwise, your words are competing for attention, and will likely be lost. Similarly, never try to speak over applause.

The What Just Happened? or Where the Heck Am I? Pause

Pauses are invaluable for allowing you to  deal with the unexpected. They can also help calm your nerves.   Take a moment to pause if you get flustered or blank out. Reiterate your previous point and move on to the next one you remember. Live stage actors do this when they forget their lines. It’s very helpful to remember that the members of the audience are not  consistently focused on you. They’re living in their own heads and thinking about their own things. They likely won’t notice if you pause for a moment to find your place and calm your nerves.

The Dying of Thirst Pause  

What if you feel you can’t go on without a sip of water?  The best time to grab a drink is when you are already in a longer pause, such as when you are at a paragraph break, transitioning to a new section of material, or when you’ve just put up a slide for your audience to study. You can also  use this technique–reaching for a drink– to conceal that you need a moment to think and recover. (see above!)  In Lend Me Your Ears: All you Need to Know about Making Speeches and Presentations, Max Atkinson points out that “the sight of speakers pausing to have a drink or to check their notes is so familiar to audiences that they are unlikely to notice that anything is wrong.”

Use the pause to add power, drama and emphasis to your content.   Mark Twain once said, The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.  The old adage is true:  Silence, used well, can speak louder than words. 

Thanks to Andrew Dlugen, Ryan McLean, Lisa B. Marshall and Susan Dugdale for suggestions and information that led to some of the ideas in this post.

Do you have some pausing techniques to add to this list?  Please share them below or email me at!