What’s the Point of a Pause?

May 14th, 2012

I hear a lot these days about the importance of pausing when you speak. It’s not a new concept, but it’s become a popular point of focus for speech coaches. “Pause for one second after every sentence. Pause for two seconds before moving on to a new point.” And so on…

That’s fine advice, but it presents a problem if you’re not used to pausing. What do you do while you pause? It has to be more than just the absence of words. You can’t practice “not doing” something.

So what do you do when you pause? You breathe. If speech is powered by breath, if breath is the “inspiration” for speech, there has to be time for breath to enter your body. Breathing creates the pause.

That in-breath provides not just the power for your voice, but it connects you to your inner experience, the impulse that moves you to speak in the first place. My colleague, Louis Colaianni, expressed it so elegantly when he said, “The incoming breath reveals how you feel. The outgoing breath expresses how you feel.”

So the pause isn’t just dead air-time. When it’s connected to your breath it’s alive with potential and expectation. You needn’t worry about sounding slow or being boring when you pause. It creates anticipation.

Pausing to breathe in enhances the clarity of your speech. Your listeners have time to actually absorb what you say. According to John Miers, “the actual process of communication takes place in the silence.”

From where I stand, the biggest benefit of the breath-pause is that it keeps you in command of your performance. Many speakers are unconsciously rushing themselves. They start to feel like someone running down a steep hill. Before long they’re out of control. Then panic sets in. Pausing frequently to breathe brings a very deliberate feeling to your speech. You have plenty of time to think, to speak clearly and connect with your listeners. You might actually enjoy the experience.

So much advice about public speaking and presentation is an attempt to produce the right result without understanding what’s going on under the surface to make that result possible. That tendency to focus on results has us putting the cart before the horse. Pausing isn’t just another point on your presentation checklist. It’s an organic part of a larger process that cultivates a deep connection to your self, your message and your listeners.