Power of pausing in public speaking

How to Harness the Power of Pausing in Public Speaking

The often unspoken rule when it comes to public speaking is silence. Using silence in speech can be one of the most powerful techniques to grab your audience’s attention and make your speech more impactful.

Mark Twain said,

“The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause”

And he’s right. While content is king, nothing will elevate your speech’s effectiveness as much as a rightly timed pause.

Pauses serve as an important tool when it comes to public speaking. Pausing for 2-3 seconds can make the audience reflect on what the speaker has said. It can also give the speaker time to gather his/her thoughts, which makes the speaker come across as someone who is patient and attentive to his audience.

Silence can sometimes be perceived as a sort of “weakness” when it comes to public speaking, but pauses at the right time for the right amount of time can surprise you with it’s heightened impact.

Pauses during a speech allow the audience to stay engaged and make it easier for them to follow your speech. However, don’t overdo the pauses. Too much of pausing can work negatively for you. But inserting tactical pauses will help take your speech to the next level! 

Types of Pauses

As a speaker, it is crucial to know that not all pauses are the same. The different types of pauses create a different impact on the audience.

1. Vital Information Pause

This is the kind of pause that is used when some crucial amount of information is delivered to the audience. This pause allows the audience to absorb the information that was delivered.

2. Dramatic Pause

This type of pause is usually used to create suspense, building a lot of anticipation among the audience.

3. Visual Pause

This is the kind of pause used while changing a slide or a visual. It allows the audience to sink in the information.

4. Rhetorical Question pause

In this, the speaker is supposed to pause after asking the rhetorical question. This gives the audience some time to answer the question in their heads.

5. Punchline Pause

This is a type of pause where the speaker pauses before and after making the punchline. It creates anticipation and lets the audience release the laughter. 

6. Sentence Pause

A sentence pause is used when switching to a different sentence instead of joining sentences by ‘and’. Take a short break before starting another sentence. This also breaks the monotony.

7. Paragraph Pause

Unlike sentence pause, this is used while shifting from one topic to another. It gives the audience some time to prepare themselves for further presentations. Moreover, also giving the speaker some time to gather his thoughts and also his breath!

The Importance of Pausing

So, what is the importance of pausing and why should you learn more about it? Read on…

Avoid Pacing in Public Speaking

This is something I’ve always been guilty of! Whether I may be excited or nervous (or both!), I tend to pace when I speak…a lot! Even though I consciously try to slow my pace down, it somewhere picks up again without me realizing it.

What I’ve found is that by pausing, even if my overall pace does not reduce, it really helps me sound clearer and be conscious of my pace. If you face the same issue of pacing, think about pausing once in a while. It will help you sound clearer and smoother.

Speak Slowly to Avoid Loss of Breath

Pause, catch your breath and continue.

This is related to pacing. When we talk quickly, we tend to lose our breath quickly as well. This makes us eat up our words without us even realizing it and just makes our speech sound fuzzy and rushed.

That’s never good. A pause here and there will you give the required time to catch your breath so you can speak more fluently.

Increase Effectiveness while Speaking

Think of all the great speeches you have ever heard. Have you wondered why they are so powerful? Although the delivery and content of the speech would be great, it’s a lot to do with how they pause for effect.

The great speaker doesn’t ramble on and on. They pause before a big statement to give the word more emphasis. It’s also a great way to throw more panache in your speech and help you sound more confident in what you are saying.

It also helps the audience realize that the word or phrase you said after/before a pause is important.

Check out this speech by Toastmaster Josephine Lee in the International Speech Contest (where she stood 3rd place in 2016) and watch how she uses the power of pause for effect. It makes her speech SO much more impactful!

Break the Monotony in a Speech

One very important reason that pauses are so important is that it gives you a way to break your speech’s pattern. Monotony is the enemy. The audience will tune out if you sound monotonous.

Think about it – when you hear a sound that is so repetitive and predictable, do you even notice it after a while? Think about the air conditioner, or your ceiling fan, or even the sound of your own breath! These sounds are tuned out until someone points them out to you.

Pausing and adding moments of silence to your speech helps break the pattern of speaking and keeps your audience from zoning out.

Grab the Audience’s Attention

Because pauses help in breaking the pattern of your speech, they help snap the audience’s attention back to you. When you hear a speaker go on and on and then suddenly pause…you seem to notice them again. It’s a simple but effective way to keep the audience engaged.  

Learn more ways to grab the audience’s attention by reading our article on 5 Ways to Grab Your Audience’s Attention When You’re Losing it!

Allows the Audience to Absorb the Message

Many speeches consist of shocking and/or bold statements. After saying such a statement, if you just continue speaking, the audience might not understand the effectiveness of what you just said. Adding a pause after a heavy statement allows the audience to absorb the message and gives them time to ponder upon it briefly.

Example of a shocking statement: “2 weeks ago, my best friend jumped off a 20-storey building and ended her own life.” Saying a sentence like this and just rambling on will reduce the effectiveness and impact of this statement.

So, pause when you say something shocking. Let the audience take it in. Let it sink in. Then, continue with your speech…

Time to Gather your Thoughts

Sometimes, if you feel like you’re getting lost while speaking, a pause can give you enough time to recollect your thoughts and recall what you had to say. When you forget your line, don’t stare at the audience nervously or use filler words like ums and ahs. Just give a short, thoughtful pause, recall what you had to say and continue.

Read our article on 6 Techniques to Stop Saying Filler Words: Eliminate the Ahs & Ums! to learn more about such techniques.

Ways to Use Pauses Effectively

As mentioned above, pauses if used correctly can make the presentation very credible and have an incredible impact on the speech.

1. Adding Emphasis to the Main Points

Pauses can be used before, during and after stating the key points of the presentation. This draws the audience’s attention to these points, indicating their importance.

2. Make the Sentences Sound Clear

By this, what is meant is that commas and full stops need some amount of pause. Comma needs brief pausing whereas a full stop needs pausing for about a second. Ensure that the punctuations in the script are implemented in the speech.

3. Replacing a Hesitation Word

Over-using hesitation words such as ‘like’, ‘so’, ‘uhmm’ can have detrimental effects on your presentation. Hence, the next time you feel as if you are going to use these words, try pausing instead.

4. Wait for the Audience to Regain Composure

After telling a joke, wait for the audience to calm down before you start the topic. Also, in the case of a large venue, the audience applauding your entrance is very common. Hence, you must pause for a considerable amount of time for the audience to finish the applause.

When to Use Pauses?

Implementing Commas in the Speech

In writing, it’s easy for a reader to understand when to pause. Without full-stops and commas, things could mean something entirely different. For instance – ‘let’s eat mom!’ means something else as opposed to ‘let’s eat, mom’.

However, when it comes to speaking, the audience does not have the benefit of commas. So make sure you provide a short pause wherever a comma comes in. It could otherwise, change the meaning of your sentence!

Making Transitions in the Speech

If you’re speaking about multiple points, pausing between two points is a great way to transition from one part of your speech to the next. Suppose you’re talking about how to fix a car.

When you are giving different pointers on how to fix your car, say the first point…pause…move on to the second point…pause…and continue so on and so forth. It makes it easier for the audience to follow you.

Read our article on Effective Speech Transitions: How to Make Your Speech Flow to understand this topic better.

Adding Drama to the Speech

Pausing helps you add drama in your speech.

When you want to add some drama into your talk, nothing works better than pausing! For instance, if you say the sentence, “If I find out who did this, I’ll kill him,” without pausing, the effectiveness of the sentence will drop. But if you say “If I find out who did this…(pause)…I’ll kill him,” it’ll add a lot more oomph and drama to your line!

Reflection on the Part of the Audience

If you have just stated something such as “have you ever thought about that?” or “have you ever felt this way?” pausing for a moment allows the audience to actually think about what you have just asked them. So, take a pause when you want the audience to take a moment and think about what you said.

Putting Emphasis and Effect on Certain Phrases

Pausing to lay emphasis on certain words helps breaks the monotony of your speech and also shows the audience that what you stated after or before the pause is of importance. It also adds more effect to your speech.

For example, if you say “The only thing that matters…(pause)…is love,” it adds a lot more effect because you’re emphasizing on such an important statement in your speech.

How to Note a Significant Pause in a Speech?

There is no single rule for the duration of the pause, as in how long should it be. There are long pauses and also short ones. It depends on a lot of things such as style of speaking, nature of the message being conveyed and also the duration of the talk.

However, it should be kept in mind that pauses shouldn’t be very short because that will defeat the entire purpose of having one.

A good speaker often varies the length of the pauses. For instance, comma pauses are shorter than sentence pauses. Whereas paragraph pauses are almost for 4-5 seconds. 

Long pauses can be somewhere between 4-10 seconds, making it a significant one. 

As an amateur speaker, it is difficult to know the exact duration of one’s pause when on stage. Hence, it is always better to pause a little longer than you think is necessary, before starting another topic.

Famous Speeches with Effective Pauses

Given below are examples of some of the famous speeches where pauses are used effectively, creating a heightened impact. 

1. Barack Obama- Presidential Acceptance Speech 

“If there – is anyone out there – who still doubts – that America is a place where – all things are possible – who still wonders – if the dream of our founders – is alive in our time, – who still questions – the power of our democracy, – tonight – is your answer.” 

This is the perfect example of how well executed pauses can create an impact on the audience. In this speech, the then president waits for the applause and cheering to stop before making the statement. 

2. John Kennedy- Inaugural Speech

“We observe today- not a victory of party -but a celebration of freedom–symbolizing an end- as well as a beginning–signifying renewal -as well as change.- For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath- our forbears prescribed- nearly a century and three-quarters ago.”

The well articulated pauses in the speech made by John Kennedy, makes it easier for the audience to follow what he is saying. 

3. Martin Luther King- I have a Dream Speech

“I am happy to join with you today -in what will go down in history -as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago,- a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today,- signed the Emancipation Proclamation.- This momentous decree came- as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves- who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.- It came as a joyous daybreak- to end the long night of their captivity.” 

In this speech, the speaker looks extremely comfortable and in control with the appropriate number of pauses, making the audience also feel comfortable and empathetic towards the speaker. 
This also makes the speech very credible. 

Practice Your Pauses

If pauses don’t come naturally to you, the best and only way to get good at it, is to practice! When you write a speech, also highlight the parts where you feel a pause will help make your speech sound better and more impactful.

We’ve written an extensive article for you on Surprisingly Simple But Effective Processes to Practicing for a Speech to practice your speech.

See if your speech includes lines that call for transitions, drama, reflection, emphasis, or effect, and see if a pause is fitting over there.

Pauses can work really powerfully when used correctly, so practice using them more in your speeches. It will help elevate your speech and more importantly…(pause)…help you become a stronger communicator beyond the stage!

Hrideep Barot is the founder and chief writer at Frantically Speaking, a portal to help people learn everything about public speaking. The purpose of franticallyspeaking.com is to showcase the lessons that he has learned (and still learning) from his numerous stage experiences and mentors over all these years.