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  • e.wulfe

Polished Pauses are a Power Move

Updated: Dec 30, 2021

There are significant benefits to knowing when and how to pause in many aspects of our life. My focus today centers on the power of pauses when we speak. Mark Twain astutely wrote, “no word is ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.” Not just any pause in speaking will do. Twain explains there needs to be an “eloquent silence.”

I am a huge proponent of using pauses as a power move. Why? A perfectly timed pause:

  • Buys us time to be calm and confident.

  • Tells our audience we are calm and confident.

  • Provides us more time to think.

  • Signals to our listeners that it is time to think.

  • Enables us to take a breath.

  • Allows our statements to breathe.

There is an art to perfecting the pause. Mark Twain admitted he “used to play with the pause as other children play with a toy.” I propose the following five settings for playing with pauses in both planned and unplanned speaking situations.

When Pauses are Impactful in Planned Presentations

1. Introductory Pause.

When we are delivering a presentation, it is impactful to pause before uttering any words at all. Our pause should be accompanied by eye contact with the audience and a smile. This introductory pause serves multiple purposes. First, it allows us time to make sure our emotions are in check. Then, it gives us a chance to connect to the room dynamics and the audience, demonstrating our self-confidence and influencing our audience’s perception of our confidence. This correlation between strategic pauses and confidence is especially vital because perceptions of our confidence influence presumptions of our competence. An introductory pause also buys us time to ensure our first statement is a strong one. It will significantly reduce our chance of beginning a speech with lackluster and unconfident words like “so,” “well,” and “okay.” We only get one chance to make a first impression and the introductory pause is important to master. James Hume, a speechwriter for five American Presidents, devotes the first chapter of his book Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln to the import of the introductory pause. He concludes by telling readers, “stand, stare, and command your audience, and they will bend their ears to listen.”

2. Grammatical Pause

Pauses in speaking are a physiological necessity. We will run out of air if we do not pause to take a breath. When we run out of air, our voice goes up in pitch or we speed up to try to cram our remaining words into our diminishing breath, both of which are the antithesis of conveying confidence. The key is for us to be in control and deliberately choose when to take a breath. The grammatical pause is an extremely easy and effective way to make space for our breaths. We can insert short pauses where commas or semicolons may be and longer pauses at the end of each sentence. We can play with different pause lengths for periods, question marks, and exclamation points. I annotate my scripts and presentation notes to replace every punctation mark with a different pause annotation. I then read my script aloud to find where additional pauses may inject my presentation with the necessary vocal dynamics to remain engaging. We improve our delivery when our listeners hear the punctuation in our presentation.

3. Dramatic Pause

A pause also can be used to signal or amplify drama. The silence of a pause in speech will draw listeners in. Even if a listener is looking down for a moment at his phone, the interlude of silence will pique his curiosity and draw him back in. The dramatic pause can function much like a few musical bars can signal to filmgoers that an important element in the story arc is about to be revealed. With our audience’s focus heightened, we can magnify the drama of what we are saying and keep our audience engaged. If we are comfortable moving across the stage or room when we present, we can pause our movement right before a dramatic point to further amplify our impact.

4. Rhetorical Pause

A rhetorical pause is perfect for emphasizing a point. We may insert a rhetorical pause after sharing a thought-provoking question, compelling metrics, or a powerful observation or quote. Phil Waknell’s “The Power of the Pause” clearly explains why it is essential that we build-in time for our audience to absorb what we are saying.

For a message to have personal meaning and generate an emotion, we need not only to hear and understand it: we also need to think about it, to think about what it means for us, and to work out how it fits with the rest of what we think we know about life, the universe and everything. Personal reflection is the glue that makes a message stick. The trouble is that most speeches and presentations bombard the audience with sentence after sentence, without giving them the time to perform this personal reflection. Leaving strategic pauses after important points gives the audience time to reflect and gives your message a chance to stick.”

5. Comedic Pause

We deepen our connection with our audience when we laugh together. That is why it is so effective to insert a joke or poke fun at ourselves during a planned presentation. When we add humor, we can learn from stand-up comedians. A pause will add punch to the punchline by signaling the audience that it is coming. We may insert a second pause to gift the audience time to recognize the joke and react. We need a third pause if there is ensuing laughter, to let it subside. The pacing of a joke greatly impacts its effect, which is why strategic comedic pauses are so potent.

When Pauses Improve our Unplanned Communications

1. Answering Questions

When we are posed a question, particularly when it is a challenging one or the stakes are high, we owe it to the person asking the question, ourselves, and anyone in earshot, to pause before responding. Emotional intelligence expert Justin Bariso explains the rule of awkward silence in his recent article.

“When faced with a challenging question, instead of answering, we pause and think deeply about how we want to answer. But make no mistake, this is no short pause. We might go five, 10, or even 15 seconds before offering a response. Which, if we’re not used to doing it, will feel very awkward at first.”

I advise clients to use this time to plan a strong opening and where they want to go in their answer. It is also important to insert pauses throughout our impromptu responses, so we are less likely to sputter filler words like “um” and “uh.” Filler words project a complete lack of confidence and competence. If we apply the rule of awkward silence in responding to questions, the extra time will put us in the driver’s seat and produce higher quality answers.

2. Employing in Negotiations

Pauses can be remarkably effective in negotiations for the same reason that professional interrogators know that their interjections of silence often lead an interviewee to dig himself into a hole. If we are in a negotiation scenario where the other side makes an insufficient offer or balks at our price, it is very impactful to maintain eye contact, but refrain from saying another word for a moment or two. This awkward silence often causes the other side to backpedal or start talking to fill the void in conversation, both of which often turn the tables in our favor.

3. Responding to Criticism

An extended pause can be highly potent in de-escalating tense situations. Pausing here helps us act deliberately, rather than react carelessly. Steve Jobs’ brilliant use of a pregnant pause at the 1997 Worldwide Developer Conference Job is a perfect example. Jobs had just returned to Apple and was guiding extensive changes across the company. In response to a barbed critique regarding what he had been doing in this time away from Apple, Jobs inserted a 20-second pause before responding with: “One of the hardest things … when you’re trying to effect change … is that … people like this gentleman … are right.” He then injected an eight-second pause before finishing with “in some areas.” I highly recommend watching the illustrative video linked above.

4. Fielding Requests for Comment

There are situations where we hear a new opinion or idea and are immediately put on the spot and asked to comment. Adding a brief silence before speaking prevents us from spitting out the first thing we think of, which may, after seconds of reflection, not be our best course of action. Taking a pause for a few seconds or longer will buy us time to speak more thoughtfully and reduce any defensive or emotionally charged retort. Warren Buffet famously said, “we can always tell someone to go to hell tomorrow.” This is something I currently am working on. I need to learn to balance the value of pausing for reflection with my fear that if I do not speak out immediately, I will forget what I wanted to say. One of my 2021 resolutions is to keep a note pad in front of me during meetings with my thoughts and potential comments separately asterisked. I then put a pause button sign (circle with 2 vertical lines) next to them if they can wait for another time either for more thought on my end or because a different time or context will improve the comment’s reception.

5. Improving our Conversations

Learning how to insert pauses in our conversations can be very telling and effective. Pausing is a power move that demonstrates our emotional intelligence. Well-timed pauses show we are listening and absorbing what we just heard. If it is a difficult or tense conversation, our ability to take a pause signals that we can control our impulses, emotions, and preconceived notions. This is precisely the type of self-regulation manifested by emotionally intelligent leaders and it is more likely to lead to conversation success.

There is an art to mastering the pause. Our first step is to clearly understand the why, when, and how. Practice is the second and most critical step. Through deliberate and strategic practice, we can ensure our pauses are properly placed and “rightly timed” to meet Twain’s standard of an “eloquent silence,” rather than an awkward one. I promise that the time we invest in making pauses our power move is time well spent.


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