Can you Pause Too Long When Making a Presentation?

By Patrick Sheehan

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Your audience loves it when you pause during a speech or presentation. It accomplishes so much:

  • It helps your audience stay with you.
  • Pausing gives you a couple of seconds to get your thoughts together so you know where you are going next.
  • You seem more in control when you add purposeful pauses.
  • Taking a pause helps get rid of your non-words (ums, ahs, ers).
  • You are perceived to be more powerful when you add some pauses.

Case study of a powerful pause

In one of our open-enrollment courses, “Your Authentic Speaking Style™” , a client was charged with giving a three-minute business talk listing three things. He was an um-er and ah-her. By this I mean that he would say “And uh, number one…And um number two….”

We stopped him and asked him to give the three points again with a pause instead of a non-word. He did it again and was more powerful.

He started laughing when he was done and said he didn’t even need to review the video we made of his talk because he FELT more powerful.

The power of the pause is profound, indeed.

Case study of a pause that undermined the speaker

I often work at internal corporate meetings. Recently, in an auditorium of 500 people, the presenter started by doing what I thought was a good job of using pauses.

As time went by I noticed that his pauses always seemed to last at least ten seconds. It became a little awkward when he stopped talking and paused, and paused, and paused.

At first I thought it was no big deal; he must have lost his train of thought.

However, he kept dropping these long pauses and it became evident that he meant to have long pauses.  It became a noticeable style. He had probably been coached, and by the consistent ten-second interval it occurred to me that he had probably practiced a great deal to get proficient with it.

What could have been normal pause might became a long pause and it took my attention away. I began waiting for the next pause and clocking the interval. Granted, this says as much about me as the speaker, but in any case, it was not a good sign. Someone in the room beside me even said something under his breath about the speaker’s behavior.

How to pause effectively and with purpose

At Interact, we don’t want to discourage pauses. As a matter of fact, it is better to pause too long than not to pause at all.
President Bill Clinton uses good, regular pauses. If you ask a question he’ll pause for as long as it takes to marshal his thoughts. He’s purposeful

My advice for using pauses effectively:

  • Put your pauses at segues, when throwing out a big number, when saying something powerful, when changing thought/topic
  • Use pause when you’re throwing out a bunch of numbers, to let the audience catch up with you.
  • A good pause lasts 2-4 seconds or so.  A little longer for a dramatic effect is good as well.
  • When writing your script, take a different color pencil and draw a line when you want the pause.
  • Take a sip of water. That’s a pause.

For some folks we kill two birds with one stone and coach them to take a couple of steps. We don’t advise our clients to walk or pace for the whole talk because people will pick up on it.

Practice makes perfect

You can easily record yourself on your phone’s video camera. As hard as it is to see yourself, that’s how people are going to see you so get up and do it for yourself. Coach yourself.

Practicing in the bathroom mirror isn’t the same as watching yourself on video. That’s why we use it on our courses.

The best communicators are always learning, always practicing.

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