The Power of Pause

Pauses can be an incredibly powerful tool in public speaking, as they provide several benefits to the speaker as well as to the audience. According to our research, the average professional speaks at a rate of 150 words per minute. Yet, according to Colorado State University, the average person thinks at a rate that is at least 4 times faster. So not surprisingly, when giving a speech, our perception of time is often off. What may feel like an eternity is actually a few short seconds for the audience.

As our thoughts race ahead of us, a pause helps us in four primary ways:

  1. Collect our thoughts: gives us and our audience time to process. A silent break in your speech also grabs your audience’s attention. It allows them to digest what you’re saying while you take a breath.
  2. Calm nerves: Taking a pause before even starting a speech is especially important for people with a fear of public speaking, as it helps calm nerves.
  3. Get back on track: If they lose their train of thought in the middle of the speech, as long as the pause isn’t too long (generally no more than 5 seconds), the audience won’t hold it against the speaker.
  4. To eliminate filler words: Both pauses and filler words are used by speakers to take a break and figure out what they’re going to say next. However, a pause makes you sound confident and in control, whereas a filler word is distracting and makes you sound as if you don’t know what to say.

Quantitative communications data demonstrates that in order to sound conversational, you should use longer pauses. Research suggests that conversational speech consists of short (0.15 seconds), medium (0.50 seconds), and long (1.50 second) pauses. When text is being read aloud, short and medium pauses are used. However, in spontaneous speech, medium and long pauses are used more often. One study from Columbia University shows that pauses correlate more with truthful speech than with deceptive speech. Pauses are a natural part of conversation, and using them in public speaking allows the speaker to come across as trustworthy and genuine.

Great public speakers often pause for 2-3 seconds or even longer. Punctuation can be helpful for deciding where to insert pauses. We use commas and periods as signs to pause when we are reading. These are the same places to pause when giving a speech. An especially useful strategy is to vary the length of your pauses. At some points, try a slight pause to collect yourself. At other points, pause for several seconds to let the audience reflect on what you’ve said. But be careful, the timing of a pause can make or break the mood of the audience. Depending on where it is placed, a pause can either build suspense or come across as awkward silence. When used correctly, short periods of silence can make a huge impact on your audience’s engagement level, the material they take away from your presentation, and the impact you make on them.