The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.
Darren LaCroix, the 2001 World Champion of Public Speaking, studied the videotapes of Toastmasters' World Champions from 1990–2000 and said, "One thing I found that every one of the winners had in common was that they all used pauses extremely effectively." In fact, Ed Tate, the 2000 World Champion of Public Speaking used one pause that was a full six seconds long. In stage time, six seconds of silence can seem like an eternity. Yet, in that powerful six seconds, he commanded the stage. He said more in silence than words ever could.
Brad: Twenty-five years ago I was a graduate student working on an advanced degree in psychology. I was extremely fortunate in securing an internship at the Family and Children's Centre. I found that all of the psychologists I got to work with were very knowledgeable and articulate. One psychologist, Chris Rainy, stood out as being the most articulate and I decided to use him as a model to help me become more articulate. Knowing about behavioral analysis, my first thought was that Chris sounded more articulate than I did because he had a larger vocabulary. However, when I observed him more carefully, Chris's vocabulary, with a very few technical exceptions, was not larger than mine. What I did notice, upon closer inspection, was that Chris sounded more articulate because he knew both when and how to pause. I decided to look more closely and found that Chris used four types of pauses: the articulation pause, the reflective pause, the dramatic pause, and the anticipatory pause.
The articulation pause is a very short pause after almost every word. It allows the word to be pronounced clearly and distinctly. A good test of how articulate you sound is to record yourself speaking or reading. If your words flow too closely into one another, you will have to slow down and add a slight pause after each word until each is distinct. However, if the words are too distinct, you will sound too formal or stilted. One of the best things you can do is to record yourself speaking or ask others for specific feedback on how well you articulate your words.
The purpose of this exercise is to help you learn to have a short articulation pause after each word. Please notice that although the following exercise is grammatically incorrect, it is incorrect for a reason: to allow almost every word to end in "s." If you don't use articulation pauses, then instead of each "s" and each word being distinct, you will find yourself hissing like a snake. Try repeating the following exercise three times. Ask friends or colleagues if you articulate each word. Also ask them if you have enough volume to reach the four corners of the room. An alternative is to recite Moses Supposes into a tape recorder and listen to how well you articulate each word and if your articulation pauses are long enough.
Moses supposes his toes is roses,
But Moses supposes erroneously.
Why is a reflective pause so powerful? Because it emphasizes the last words the speaker said. In that moment of silence the listener is thinking, "The speaker is giving me time to think about what he just said, so it must have been important."
Sometimes we just need a little time to savor or reflect on an interesting point, conclusion, fact, statistic, or story. The reflective pause allows your audience to do this without feeling that it has to catch up as the speaker goes on to the next point.
As we discussed earlier, presentation coach Betty K. Cooper calls this the HUD principle (see Strategy 3). So many presenters are in love with so much of their material that they try to cram everything into one presentation. You can't cram wisdom, and wisdom is what excellent presentations are all about. Therefore, as presenters we need to give the participants time to Hear what we say, Understand our message, and Digest the wisdom.
With a word processor, we can add emphasis by boldfacing a word or phrase. When speaking, we can add emphasis by pausing both before and after the word or phrase that we want to emphasize.
David: When I tell the story of a time I experienced a very embarrassing speaking moment, I use a dramatic pause to emphasize one important word. The event I retell was of the moment in a timed speech contest that I discovered someone had switched my flip chart with someone else's. There was no time to correct the mistake, so I had to finish the rest of my speech without my critically important prop. I then explain that I immediately left the room and went out to walk the streets while wallowing in self pity. "I wanted to go back in there and tell everyone that it wasn't my fault. I wanted to tell everyone that it wasn't me who had screwed up, it was someone else. I wanted to go back in there and blame…[four-second pause, shake head]…but I knew I couldn't do that. Because I've learned that if I am to accept the credit for my successes, I must accept the responsibility for my failures."
In that four-second pause, the word "blame" resonates. It signals an abrupt shift of momentum and mood, all without words—and that pause creates more drama than words ever could.
Anticipatory pauses build suspense. As in a well-told joke, you draw it out just enough to tantalize your audience. Jack Benny provided a memorable example of its use. With his well-honed reputation as a miserly tightwad, the classic moment played out like this: A robber points a gun at Benny with the demand, "Your money or your life." At least 10 seconds pass. The robber, puzzled at the delay, shouts, "Well?" Benny replies, "I'm thinking, I'm thinking!" The punch line was amusing, but it was in the anticipation that the real humor lay. Today's master of the anticipatory pause is Lou Heckler. You can hear Lou in action in a presentation titled The Pause That Brings Applause. By listening to tapes of Lou's presentations, you'll hear the anticipatory pause at its best.