The Importance of Pauses in Innovative Presentations

By Ray Anthony, Barbara Boyd

It may not seem like it, but pauses can be just as important to your innovative presentations as the words you are saying. The English poet, writer, and novelist Rudyard Kipling aptly said, “By your silence, ye shall speak.” And as classical pianist Artur Schnabel profoundly noted, “I don’t think I handle the notes much differently from other pianists.

But the pauses between the notes — ah, there is where the artistry lies!” Using pauses effectively and dramatically in your presentations reflects your speaking artistry and eloquence.

The main reasons to use pauses are for variety, understanding, and emphasis. A pause is a form of oral punctuation that can help your audience reflect on what you just said. In a way, sudden silence (especially if you’ve been using a quickened rate of speech) has the same effect as a sudden loud noise. It alerts your audience and makes them attentive to what you say next.

When using a pause for emphasis, you want to focus audience attention on your most important pieces of information.

Pauses regulate the rhythm of your speech like that of a natural conversation. They also help you collect your thoughts before moving onto the next piece of information.

Determine when and how long a pause should be to enhance your presentation. Typical pauses last one to two seconds; dramatic, extended pauses last as long as four to six seconds.

Although these commonly termed pregnant pauses may seem unnatural for you and uncomfortable for your audience, the longer theatrical-style pauses — done at strategic times in your presentation — can have a very strong impact. They are often used to give people time to consider the paramount consequences of your statement.

Keep in mind that too many long pauses or too many pauses in general can make your presentation choppy.

Consider using a pause either before or after the following types of content:

  • Key points and critical messages

  • Vital facts, statistics, or other shocking information

  • Important quotations

  • A rhetorical or thought-provoking question

  • Key names, dates, events, or titles

  • Essential benefits of your product, service, proposal, plan, or program

  • During the buildup of suspenseful parts of your story

  • Impact and consequences of problems or situations your audience is facing

Proper use of pauses can prevent sentence run-on, which is going from sentence to sentence without stopping. An attendee in our training session called it “a motor mouth without a brake.”

If you enumerate points, using a pause in between can help an audience absorb each one. When you use pauses, make sure that you apply them deliberately and cleanly. You don’t want to give your audience the impression that you’re repeatedly groping for words or hesitating, which can come across as being nervous or unprepared.

You want to be articulate, but don’t be too deliberate in terms of pausing frequently between words, so that your pace, combined with a slow, even rate of speech, becomes either frustrating or sleep-inducing.

To add extra punch to your pause, slow down your speech rate and increase your speech volume just before you pause. While you are pausing for several seconds, use good eye contact around the room to reinforce what you said. You can use pause and repetition of your point for a dramatic effect. Raise your volume in steps as you repeat each point for increasing emphasis.

The acclaimed British Shakespearean stage actor Ralph Richardson had this insight, “The most precious things in speech are pauses.” Consummate presenters, those who have learned the power of perfectly timed silence, know the value and truth of that. As you watch good movies, television dramas, and plays, for example, see how the seasoned professionals use pauses. You’ll be impressed and you can adopt some of those refined techniques.

Avoid using fillers like uh, okay, uhm, and you know instead of intended pauses. Practice and concentrate on finishing each sentence without a filler, and you’ll soon rid yourself of that bad speaking habit.