Speaking in public is stressful. The most terrifying aspect of public speaking is when you imagine you have come to a dead stop during your presentation. Uh oh! You don’t know what to say next. Silence. Dead silence. The audience is looking at you. You are staring at your audience. This is the public speaking nightmare.
Yet, paradoxically, one of the best tips to overcome fright is to capture the power of the silent moment, and use it to your advantage. Guess what? They’ll never know. And, what’s more, a pause helps in a variety of ways.
First, it can help to relax you, literally giving you a chance to catch your breath, find your place, or glance at your notes.
Second, a pause provides dramatic interest for your audience. Of course, if you’re really nervous you have your own drama taking place, whether your audience knows it or not. But, a moment unspoken provides the silent drumroll to announce your next important point.
Third, a pause helps your audience to follow you better—they become better listeners. And, as they become more attentive, you relax and so do they. Your audience does not want to be nervous on your behalf.
I recently delivered a workshop at the American Payroll Association’s Annual Congress (May 2011) titled, “Effective Business Communications: On Paper, Online, and On Your Feet.” While at the conference, I also enjoyed a presentation called “Advanced Career-Building Speaking Skills”conducted by professional presentation skills trainer and speech coach, Patricia Fripp. Fripp’s delivery and timing served as an excellent model. She made exceptional use of the pause. As an energetic presenter it helped to slow her down, and the audience could absorb what she was saying. In effect, it’s a “listening cue,” providing you, the audience, a signal to take note of what’s about to be said.
To demonstrate the power of the pause, Fripp asked one of the audience members to come forward. Within five minutes, the volunteer had added pauses between the three major points and just before the conclusion of the persuasive argument she was preparing for senior management. The presentation did something else to improve her delivery: Fripp counseled her to make eye contact with a different member of the audience—near, middle, and far—to accompany each of the pauses. The results were dramatic.
According to Fripp, “Few sales presentations have enough pauses. Good music and good communication both contain changes of pace, pauses, and full rests. This is when listeners think about important points you’ve just made. If you rush on at full speed to crowd in as much information as possible, chances are you’ve left your prospects back at the station. Give them enough time to ask a question or even time to think over what has been said. Pauses allow pondering and understanding.”
To help prepare for your public speaking opportunity, you can write a narrative to help you rehearse. It helps to identify the places in your presentation where a pause will come naturally, just as you might accent a word or phrase for other additional emphasis.
And, as is taught in yoga, don’t forget to breathe.