Pauses are a presenter’s way of commanding their audience’s attention. Yet all too often they are underused and overlooked.
Most presenters either don’t pause at all or if they try to, they don’t hold the pause for long enough for it to create the desired effect on the audience because it feels much longer for you than it does for them.
The purpose of a pause is to heighten the emotional experience. Without them, the impact of your presentations will be limited. With them, you will unlock higher highs and lower lows for your audience, making both your presentation and message more memorable.
While standing in front of a group of people and holding a silence can feel excruciatingly uncomfortable at first, the benefits are more than worth it. Not least the fact that learning how to be comfortable with silence is the cure for anyone who suffers from needlessly uttering filler words like ums and ahs.
So how long does a pause need to be in order for it to have an impact?
Well, anything less than a second and you might as well have not bothered. Beyond that, as a general rule of thumb, the larger the room the larger the pause needed for the audience to feel it. With practice, you’ll learn to find a balance that works well for you and your own presentation style.
A simple trick that I use to hit what I consider to be the all-important two-second mark is to say:
'This moment is mine'
while you hold the pause. After that, rely on your gut feel.
So when should you pause during your presentations? Here are the most effective places:
1. Before, during and/or after your first sentence
Most people rush into starting their presentations because their fight or flight response gets the better of them. Taking the time to hold a pause before you start presenting shows confidence, gives you the chance to centre yourself and signals to your audience that you’re about to start and their full attention is required.
Video Credit: Michelle Obama, Democratic Convention 2016
2. After asking a rhetorical question
Rhetorical questions can help to make your presentations feel like you're having a conversation with your audience (albeit a silent one). The secret to asking great rhetorical questions is to ask questions that get your audience thinking. Ones where the answer isn’t immediately obvious.
Pausing straight after the question gives your audience a chance to consider an answer. It makes them active participants in your presentation rather than passive listeners.
Video Credit: Chris Hadfield, TED
3. Before and after delivering a 'power statement'
There are normally several sentences in every presentation that you know you need to land. It might be an insight, the moral of a story or the punchline of a joke. These are what I call power statements.
Sandwiching that sentence with a pause is the most effective way to ensure that these statements pack a punch. The first pause is designed to create anticipation for what you’re about to say. It also acts as a kind of presentation life raft by helping members of the audience who had lost concentration to re-engage. The second pause gives your audience a chance to reflect on and feel the consequences of the point you’ve just made.
Video Credit: Rory Sutherland, TED
If you are one of those people who gets worried that they speak too fast when they present, my advice to you is rather than attempting to speak slower and risk coming across as inauthentic or monotonous, try pausing more instead.
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