When we are scared, anxious, or excessively nervous, our body kicks into fight-or-flight mode, a natural survival instinct. Because public speaking can be a terrifying experience for many, the brain can trigger the “flight” response, and cause us to speak as quickly as possible in order to get off the stage as soon as possible. For me, speaking incredibly fast was one of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome to improve my speaking. On stage, my nerves combined with excitement over my topic made it sound like I was auditioning to be an auctioneer!
One of the most respected speakers and coaches I’ve ever worked with it put it like this: “Music is what happens in the space between the notes.” As in, without the pause it’s just white noise, not harmony. Presenting is the same way.
But by practicing adding planned, specific pauses, I learned to slow down, and calm down, in order to give much better speeches. Here are 3 reasons why adding and practicing pauses will make you a better speaker:
Adding planned pauses will help calm nerves
Many speakers give a speech, sit down, and realize they didn’t take a breath the entire time they were speaking. Adding a planned pause will give you a chance to stop, take a deep breath, and then continue. Controlling your breathing and taking deep breaths helps to calm your nerves because it sends the message to your brain that everything is safe, and there’s no need to panic.
Planned pauses help the audience absorb more information
Have you ever been in the audience when the speaker was tearing through their material at a break-neck pace? How much did you remember? How much did you understand? Practicing adding specific pauses in your speech will give your audience time to process and recall your information. After all, if they don’t understand what you’re saying, then what was the point?
Pauses add dramatic effect and emphasis in the speech
During the course of your speech, if you tell a joke, ask a rhetorical question, or make a key point, adding a pause afterwards adds the emphasis necessary for these speech elements to be effective. A coach once told me, “Give them the time to laugh at the joke!” I didn’t realize I was running right over the audience response when I failed to pause after I’d said something that was intended to have impact.
Bonus: Pauses will help you remember what you need to say next
One of the biggest fears most speakers have is forgetting their material. Adding deliberate pauses isn’t just good for your audience members’ brains, it’s good for yours too! When you’re practicing think about where you naturally want to stop for a moment, and then what point you will make after the pause. If you need to use notes, then this is a built-in time to quickly glance at what comes next without it feeling awkward or throwing you off your game.
Adding the pause is an underrated, but highly valuable presenting skill! It demonstrates confidence, calmness, and awareness of the audience. Practice adding pauses in your next speech, and let me know how it works!
An earlier version of this post appears on Speaking Practically.