Presentation Skills - The Power of the Pause

"The right word may be effective, but nothing is as effective as a rightly timed pause."
- Mark Twain

Mark Twain, through erroneous attribution, is accused of saying many things, but the foregoing is not only a true quote -its one which he both deeply believed and practiced. Although Twain, nee Samuel Clemens, is remembered by most in this century for his written works, he spent the majority of his years, right up to old age, touring the world giving talks. Publicly speaking.

He had to. Having poured the profits from his books into a number of inventions and business schemes that all turned for the worst, Clemens found himself both deeply in debt and socially embarrassed by the state of his finances. A fiercely proud man, he determined to repay all his creditors at whatever cost, and so, against his wishes, heeded the advice of friends that the world would show up wherever he chose to speak and share his special down-home American wisdom.

Because, like most of us, he so disliked speaking in front of a group, he decided to explore the art to find out if there might be ways to make it easier on himself, and in so doing, make it easier on the audience, too. Between his own speaking engagements he thus sought out opportunities to hear others who spoke publicly, and with the practiced eye and ear for observation so apparent in his writings, became educated in the techniques that proved effective in winning audiences.

Though much has changed in speaking styles since, if one were to study the devices used by effective speakers today, she would find many of the same things Twain discovered a century ago. Chief among them would be this: people only start listening when you stop talking. To put it another way, one of the very best things you can ever do while speaking is to not.

One of the most difficult aspects of effective public speaking that participants in our corporate classes have to learn is that for whatever it is you have to say, audiences require regular and numerous breaks to absorb the last thing you said before taking on and processing the next thing you have to say. For most speakers, the anxiety of the experience and the physiological manifestations of that anxiety cause them to not only speak too quickly, but to continue to speak non-stop until they've finished their spurt so they can be done and quickly regain their seat.

The result of which is known as AGS, or Al Gore Syndrome, so named for that hapless soul who spoke non-stop in his 2000 AD inaugural acceptance speech, wanting so badly to get all his points across that he wouldn't even stop to accept applause; for the last 20 minutes of his speech he spoke to a non-responding audience who had not only given up trying to reward him for his content, but also on trying to digest the non-stop barrage of ideas without ever a hint of respite to do so.

You see, the pause in speaking is equivalent to the paragraph in the written word. Paragraphs set apart one concept from the next, but structurally they do even more. By giving the eye some white space at the end of one concept, and even a lit bit more before starting the next, the brain is given a break. A break just long enough to take in the thought that was last delivered before having to embark on processing yet another.

All great speakers know this. One great speaker, Bill Clinton (regardless of in what esteem one holds his political beliefs, if any, one must concede he is one) owes much of his political success to knowing the power of the pause. In fact, most speaking experts consider Bill Clinton to be the Master of the Pause. Clinton knows that people only start listening when you stop talking. Despite many technical failings the former president displays on the podium (pointing and lip biting to name a few), no one in public life today knows better how to craft a persuasive argument through the use of simple pauses between small groups of words.

To best appreciate the power of this technique, Google "Clinton speech" or "Clinton video" or even "Clinton audio" and click on whatever comes up. Then while listening, count the number of words he puts forth before pausing (typically fewer than seven and often as few as two), and also listen for the amount of time he is silent relative to the amount of time words are flowing from his lips. Depending on what speech you find, silence can amount to as much as 30%! Then do the same exercise the next time your boss speaks. While your boss might be president of your company, its also true that he didn't learn as much as some poor kid from Arkansas did and use the Power of the Pause to get to the highest position in the land.

Accept the fact that time goes by just nicely, thank you, without being filled up with your words. Practice holding off on your next thought for just a moment after completing your last. Note the hint of understanding in your audience's eyes when you give them a moment to ingest your great idea. Stop talking, and notice how people begin to listen.

J. Douglas Jefferys brings twenty-five years of corporate training experience to his role as a principal of []. His firm changes presenters' lives forever with their unique approach to training presentation design and delivery skills. Discover how to design and deliver presentations that audiences actually listen to by visiting their website now.