The Big Fish Blog

The Power of the Pause

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

“Um, you know, like…”

You’ve heard it many, many times in your daily life.  Whether it’s your friend telling a story, your teacher giving a lesson, or even at a professional business pitch or speech.  I bet you say it all of the time and don’t even realize it!

This little phrase and others like it are what we call “filler words.”  You use them when you don’t know what to say.  There is a momentary gap in your thoughts, and you have fallen into the habit of filling that space with small, useless phrases in order to compensate.  We can’t help but to maintain the rhythm of our speech, so we subconsciously resort to sputtering out what we think covers our lack of direction.

However, it does just the opposite. Instead of sounding smooth, we sound as if we have no idea what we’re talking about. We seem unorganized and unconfident.

Why is it so hard to be silent in between our thoughts?  Why does there have to be a constant stream of sound when we speak?

The root of the problem lies in our lack of patience.  Most of us can’t stand to wait in between our sentences because we feel too slow and deliberate.  It isn’t in our nature to pause in our speech because we don’t pause in our thoughts.  However, learning to pause in our thoughts increases our odds of finding the right word, phrase or point.  This is beneficial to your audience, who are listening to you because they want good, clear ideas presented to them.

Although we don’t realize it, the people who listen to us actually crave silence.  Silence gives them a chance to digest the information being presented to us.  It gives them a chance to breathe.  We all have that friend that just can’t or won’t slow down to talk.  They speak a million miles a minute.  You just want to calm them down and get the information out in a reasonable fashion.  It’s the same with presentations or speeches.

Robert Byrd, a U.S. Senator and notable orator once said, “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.”

Slow down.  Breathe.  Think.  Your audience will appreciate it, I promise.

When you are speaking in front of a crowd, your heart rate accelerates (no matter how calm  you may think you are).  Because of this acceleration, every second seems like a minute.  People often get on stage and can’t remember everything they said because they were so focused on getting the information out quickly and walking off stage away from all of the eyes and ears in the room.

If you can train yourself (and yes, it takes training to do this effectively) to pause a second or two longer than you think you can bear it, you will benefit as a speaker.

How, you ask? Well, for several reasons, actually.

Firstly, by pausing in between sentences you are helping your audience listen.  Your audience isn’t worried about trying to grab information or ideas as it comes whizzing by.  Instead, they can absorb information at a reasonable speed, and therefore be more engaged as an audience.

In addition, the pause improves your demeanor as a speaker.  You appear more confident when you get your message across in a direct manner, rather than diluting the meaning of your words.  Ideas are stronger and more valuable when they aren’t littered with irrelevant, essentially meaningless babble.

Finally, the silence allows you to breathe.  Taking a breath before you speak helps tremendously because it allows more oxygen to go to your brain, which allows you to focus on choosing the right words.  An extra breath also gives your voice more gusto, which subsequently makes your words more attractive for your listeners.

In order to master the art of the pause, it takes practice and patience.  An effective exercise involves slowly reading a good, tight piece of writing aloud.  Pick up a newspaper, research a good written speech or just read a children’s book.  Take your time and pause in between phrases that go together.  Do this for a few paragraphs each day and you will begin to notice your heart rate decelerating and your words becoming clearer.

So remember, take your time in your speeches or presentations.  Use your words wisely, and pause to focus on finding a solid, patient rhythm.  Your audience will appreciate your ideas, and you will get your message across more clearly.

After all, silence is golden.

Be sure to leave us your thoughts on the power of the pause!  What do you struggle with the most in your presentations?  We’d love to help!

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7 thoughts on “The Power of the Pause

  1. Oh so easy to say and oh so hard to do!
    As you mention I know it takes practice, but I just can’t seem to control my lack of patience; any tips?

    • A tip our CEO recommends (because he is sometimes impatient too) is to record yourself speaking when you rehearse/practice. Learn how to pace and relax your nerves by listening to yourself and hearing how you sound like.

      • Thanks for the tip, I’ll certainly try it.
        My problem is not really nerves, as much as a passion for what I present and a need to share everything I know, rather than the more effective pause ;-)

  2. Very valuable post – this is something which almost everyone does. The few people who I’ve heard who don’t do it really shine out from the rest. I’ve actually been doing test calls with our customer service, where we counted the number of ‘uhms’ and ‘ehhs’ to track how many there are and see if they can be decreased the next time over. Something interesting which I found out was that ‘uhms’ are longer than the ‘ehhs’ and hence are even more important to try and prevent.

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