Captivate Your Listeners With the Power of the Pause

(1,373 words)

Like good actors, our most powerful and persuasive business speakers focus on the needs of their listeners, especially the need to feel engaged and understand the message fully.  The pace of the spoken message has a strong impact on the audience and directly influences the way speakers are perceived.

One way to help ensure your listeners’ engagement and complete comprehension is to take advantage of the power of the pause when you speak.  Allow your spoken ideas to “land”.  Take time to pause between ideas and allow the listener to digest what was just said.  This is a concept that crafted actors always keep in mind; it demonstrates empathy for the listeners and a concern for their experience in the communication situation.

The University of Michigan conducted a study of various speech characteristics and how they influence listener decisions.  In the study’s sample, speakers who spoke at a rate of 3.5 words per second (a moderate pace) were more successful in getting listeners to agree with them – compared to those who talked very fast or very slowly.  People who speak very rapidly are often suspected of wanting to deceive the listener (think of the phrase “a fast-talker”), and those who speak very slowly are often viewed as lacking intelligence.

The study also found that speakers who used frequent, short pauses were more successful than speakers who were completely “fluid”.  In conversation, most people naturally pause about four or five times per minute, whether these pauses are filled with some kind of sound or not.  The University of Michigan study revealed that when speakers never paused, they had the lowest success rate in getting listeners to do what they wanted them to do.  This was attributed to the speakers sounding “scripted”.

Here are some strategies to help you pause effectively and command listener attention:

Think in thought groups:

While it is true that every word that you speak “counts” and should be heard/understood by the listener, every word is not equally important and, more to the point, we don’t think in words.  People think, speak, and listen in thought groups (ideas).

When you prepare to speak for business, analyze the whole message, reviewing your notes to determine where one thought ends and the next one begins.  (If you happen to be using a script for any reason, it is helpful to ignore standard punctuation when doing this; punctuation is a navigational guide for the reader, not for the listener.)

Focus on meaning and become conscious of where each thought begins and ends.  If you are inattentive to the end of a thought and beginning of another, your audience might feel overwhelmed by an unmanageable amount of input and may be forced to tune out.

Pursue the focus word of each thought:

Because all our words are not of equal importance, your preparation to speak should include a deep investigation of each of the thoughts you plan to express, to determine which word in the thought should receive focus.

Deciding which words should take focus is an interesting and fruitful endeavor; it has a strong impact on the degree to which you capture the listeners’ attention, keep them engaged, surprise them, and even entertain them.  The choice of one word instead of another should be based upon (1) which words constitute “new” information and which words constitute “old” (previously referred-to) information and (2) your own perspectives about the content within each complete thought.  As you review your notes, underline the focus word of each thought and practice aloud, stressing only the focus word of each complete thought. Pursue this word enthusiastically as you speak.

I had the good fortune to study acting with the late Mira Rostova, acting coach to Montgomery Clift.  Mira used to say, “Go for the point!  Go for the point!”  Pursuing the focus word (Mira’s “point”) will drive your ideas with power.

Pause briefly after each complete thought:

Even the smartest and best listeners require time to digest a complete thought.

Most people need more time to digest a spoken thought than a thought expressed in writing.  For most people, the visual medium is more powerful than the auditory medium.  When people are both watching and listening to a speaker, they must process a greater amount of information than when they are only listening. Therefore, it takes more time (even if it is only a few seconds longer) to sort and digest meaning from this wider palette.

Help your face-to-face listeners understand your message by giving them time.  Pause briefly after each complete thought, to let it “land”.  Don’t be in a rush to go on to your next idea.  During that pause, breathe deeply, maintain eye contact, and smile whenever appropriate.  When you give listeners time to process each thought, you not only facilitate their comprehension, but you communicate your own conviction that your ideas have value and carry weight.

Why smile?  Even with content that is not “happy”, your demeanor and voice should project a positive spin.  Think “good news” thoughts, such as “What I’m saying will help you do business better!”

Before moving from one idea to the next, discern whether or not your listeners have understood what you just said.  Confirm their understanding by making eye contact and silently and constantly noticing the subtle nuances of their facial expressions and body language.  Before speaking your next idea, be sure that you listeners are ready to receive it.

Listeners are silently communicating valuable information throughout your stream of spoken ideas.  Like actors, business speakers must become sensitive to these silent cues.  The more often you look for cues from your listeners, the faster you will discern their readiness for your next idea, meet their needs, and achieve your objectives.

The power of the “surprising” pause:

Successful business speakers are like good actors in another way:  they use the surprising pause strategically to command attention and add depth to their message.

The element of surprise is a key factor in getting and keeping listener attention.  The great British actor, John Gielgud, famously said that, when acting Shakespeare, the pauses are the most important moments of the speech.  He knew that when pauses are used strategically, they can be arresting.

Pausing at meaningful and unpredictable moments is useful in three ways:

  1. It creates variety in your delivery:  A moment of unexpected silence provides the greatest contrast to a stream of words.
  2. It creates suspense:  It teases your listeners for a moment, making them want to hear more.
  3. It gives your listeners a window into your inner world:  Listeners want to know what the speaker is feeling or thinking, underneath the words.  A surprising pause, filled with meaning, allows your listeners to observe a different quality in your expressiveness and gain additional perspectives.

Here is an example of just how effective a surprising pause can be.  The following text is an excerpt from a play called Other People’s Money, by Jerry Sterner.  One can pause in spots that are logical and what might be considered “predictable”.   The slash marks within the text indicate pauses:

“One day, / when the dollar is weaker or the yen stronger, / or when we finally begin to rebuild the roads, the bridges, the infrastructure of our country, / demand will skyrocket.”

A more surprising (and therefore more interesting/engaging) choice would be to pause in spots that might surprise you:

“One day, / when the dollar is / weaker / or the yen / stronger, /

or when we finally begin to rebuild the roads, the bridges, the infrastructure of our country, / demand / will skyrocket.”

Try speaking the text this way; you will find that the second delivery, with pauses at more surprising moments, is the more compelling of the two versions.

As you rehearse your business talk, consider why and when you will pause.  Focus on listener needs by taking well-timed and meaningful pauses – and some at moments when those pauses might be most surprising and add depth to your message.

Make your delivery truly compelling and captivate your listeners.  Allow your thoughts to “land” when you speak and capitalize on the “power of the pause”.

Copyright © 2013-2015 Maria Guida


Maria Guida  is an executive speaking coach/trainer, professional speaker, and Broadway actress.  With her experience on stage, TV and film (working with Paul Newman, James Earl Jones, and  Kevin Kline), she helps savvy executives in all industries enhance their credibility and generate business by speaking with poise, passion, and persuasive power.  Delighted clients include American Express, JPMorgan Chase, and Johnson & Johnson.  Maria travels extensively to deliver interactive and entertaining keynotes and workshops.  She can be reached at 718-884-2282 and maria@successfulspeakerinc.com; or visit www.successfulspeakerinc.com.


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