We use pauses in everyday speech, yet when we get up in front of a crowd our nervousness takes hold of our tongues and speeds things up making everything you’ve just said sound like one long sentence (sort of like this sentence, eh?) Try it with a friend over lunch. When you speak to them, don’t pause from one idea to the next, just keep going. I doubt it will take long for your listener to stop you and ask you if you’re feeling okay or if you have a case of verbal diarrhoea.
The power of the pause is immense. Without them your talk is nothing more than one long sentence where your ideas and thoughts are a mishmash, hardly discernable to the audience. A dramatic pause causes the audience to think, to mull over what you’ve just said or to really feel the impact of your last statement.
Their function is to separate ideas and hold the audience’s attention. Used too often, however, they can serve to undermine your speech as the audience suspects you are trying to manipulate them with your verbal theatrics. Knowing when to pause and when not to pause is not as difficult as you might think. Try this little exercise. Take a moment to find Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s famous speech I Have a Dream on the Internet, and then read it. Decide for yourself where you think the pauses should go.
If you have had the pleasure of seeing Martin Luther King Jr. deliver this speech then you will recall exactly where he paused and didn’t pause. If you haven’t seen this famous and very moving address, I am still certain you would know where to pause for dramatic effect. For example, whenever Dr. King recites a list, such as: “from the hilltops of New Hampshire, from the mountains of New York, from the snow capped Rockies of Colorado and from the molehill of Mississippi,” there is a slight pause between each one so that the audience can picture in their mind the images associated with each state.
And did you notice the repetition throughout the talk? Repetition makes things stick. Dr. King repeats “go back” in the beginning of the talk to incite people to go back to their homes wherever that may be and spread the message, “let freedom ring.” This speech has got to be one of the best crafted, best articulated and best delivered of all time. Model this formula, and you’ll have a winning talk of your own.
Another important thing to remember about pauses is that they are absolutely necessary in your talk so that the audience will fully grasp what you are saying. Your pauses must be significant enough between two separate ideas or when you are about to change subjects in order for the audience to realize, “Oh, now we’re going to listen to something different than what we’ve been listening to.”
If you don’t pause you will be half way through your second topic when the audience will finally realize “Hey, who switched the channel?” This is public speaking suicide—confusing your audience. Once you’ve managed to confuse them, you have also managed to irritate them. Remember, audience members come to listen and to learn. If they have to exercise mental feats of daring in order to comprehend your message they will quickly turn the channel on you by switching off their minds.