Don’t Be Afraid of Silence

March 5, 2015

use silence in presentations

The best talks I’ve ever heard have been full of silence–which we call pauses. Not mechanical, “I’m counting to 5″ pauses, but the kind that make clear the speaker is actually thinking about their ideas. Doing this allows the audience to do the same.

So, ideally, to be one of those great speakers, you’ll stop worrying about how you look and sound and just focus on what you’re saying and why it matters to the audience. Because being in the moment causes those pauses to happen, naturally and effectively. Just as they do in conversation. That kind of focus and those natural pauses make it a lot easier to speak. Plus, your audience will be able to relax, not worry about you, and just listen to your message.

Pausing before you start makes you feel:

  • Taller
  • Smarter
  • In control
  • Able to think more clearly

When you pause before you start, your audience will see you as:

  • Taller
  • Smarter
  • In control
  • Worth listening to

Here are a few ways that being comfortably silent (pausing) works in your favor:

  • Gives you the freedom to start when you’re ready rather than plunging in and getting it wrong
  • Gives you time to process what you’re saying
  • Makes it easier for you to stay in the moment
  • Helps you feel calm and focused
  • Gives you time to get back on track if you’ve lost your way
  • Highlights important ideas by giving them some “white space”

It’s easier to stay in the moment when you’re not trying to think of everything at once.

It’s always important to consider how your speaking affects your audience, so here are a few ways that same silence is also good for the audience:

  • Gives them time to absorb your points
  • Gives them confidence that you know what you’re doing
  • Helps them stay focused on the points that matter
  • Makes it more conversational, therefore easier to listen to
  • Let’s them feel comfortable about listening to you

When you see good speakers who have good pauses, it becomes clear that silence is your friend. However, most people don’t find it all that easy to embrace this friend. Start by acknowledging all those benefits of pausing listed above. It will help you give up the fear that pausing makes you look unprepared.

Think of Olympic divers and how long they stand on the end of the board. It can seem like an eternity and no one interprets that as their being unprepared. It’s considerably more powerful than if they went up the ladder and straight into the dive. They’re getting mentally prepared, and you need to do the same before you start your talk. The diver looks more credible by taking time to focus, and so will you.

Looking at it from another angle: We’ve all heard that we need to put on our oxygen masks (on the airplane) before trying to help others. Essentially, the message is that we can’t help anyone else if we’ve passed out. It’s the same with speaking. If you’ve passed out, you’re not much help to your audience. Gathering yourself before you start talking allows you to get started on the right foot so you can help your audience. Take the time to put on your “oxygen mask.” That is, before you open your mouth, make sure you’re breathing and focused. You’ll start where you want to start, and you’ll feel focused and ready. To the audience, that pause makes you look like you’re in charge of what’s coming.

An added benefit is that it also quiets your anxiety, which causes you to pause naturally as you work through your message. Without that pause–those moments of reflection and focus–you can feel out of control the whole time you’re speaking. When you sit down, you’re not entirely sure what you said or how it came off. Get a grip at the beginning, and you can have a conversation with the audience that is full of pauses in appropriate places and satisfies both you and them.

Silence is your friend. Be kind to yourself and give it a try.

For some great examples of pausing and silence in a speech or presentation, check out these videos:

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About The Author

Barbara Rocha, a nationally known speaker, trainer, author and consultant, is Director of Barbara Rocha and Associates, a communications training firm based in Pasadena, California. For more than 30 years she has conducted over 1200 of its training seminars for well over 11,000 business executives. These seminars teach verbal and written communications; they are tailored to the specific needs of clients. Other services include keynote speaker, conference session leader, individual coaching and speech preparation. Clients include Anchorage Daily News, Century Housing Corporation, Ericsson Turkey, ExxonMobil, Federal Reserve Bank, Metropolitan Water District, Southern California Edison, Turkcell, Turner Construction, Verizon, The Washington Post. Rocha earned her B.A. from UCLA, taught in public schools, did graduate study at California State University and earned her M.A. in history, writing a thesis analyzing the speaking ability of Winston Churchill. She is the author of Getting Over Yourself: A Guide to Painless Public Speaking. She has been conducting courses for the American Management Association since 1980.

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