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The power of pausing

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Giving a speech is not the same as writing an article and reading it aloud ....... it's giving a performance.

In the Secrets of Obama's Public Speaking Success I wrote about the rhetorical techniques that Barack Obama regularly uses to make his speeches so powerful. But there's something else that is even more important – his delivery. Despite their many rhetorical flourishes, his speeches can sometimes appear somewhat clunky on paper, but they come to life when he speaks them aloud.

Someone reading a transcript of one of his speeches without having heard him speak might note a number of nice rhetorical flourishes, but be unimpressed with the apparent lack of content. Even a supporter might acknowledge the absence of really great, memorable lines.

However, all this is irrelevant once you hear the man speak; his delivery is near perfect. He is a master of the various elements of great delivery. He varies his volume, speed and intonation with great effect, but in this article I want to concentrate on his mastery of pauses.

Pauses are the punctuation of speech. Inexperienced speakers think of a pause as a failure in fluency, and try to avoid its use. Experienced speakers like President Obama use pauses deliberately, to focus attention on what has been said (or is about to be said), or to prepare the audience for a change in ideas.

To quote the great American comedian Jack Benny: 'When you are speaking, timing is not so much knowing when to speak, but knowing when to pause'. But most people are very uncomfortable with it. If they cannot find the exact word they are looking for, they will fill the silence with a ‘filler phrase' such as 'uh', 'erm', ˜like' or 'you know' whilst looking away.

This simply makes you sound inarticulate and if taken to extremes, uneducated and unintelligent. Listen to yourself on tape, note the filler phrases you use and STOP IT.

Instead of looking away, maintain eye contact with the audience and simply stay silent for a few seconds. Because of the adrenaline racing around your body, a silence of three seconds will seem like three minutes, so you will be tempted to end it much quicker than you should, Always stay silent for slightly longer than you feel comfortable with.

A pause also gives the audience valuable time to process what has just been said (especially after an important point has just been made). A long speech given without pauses is incredibly difficult to take in, and actually unpleasant to listen to.

There are seven types of pause:

  • Phrasing: taken whenever a punctuation mark is used.
  • Breathing: to enable breath to be renewed.
  • Rhythmic: associated with the rhythm of speech
  • Underlining: used after a word or phrase to let its importance sink in.
  • Emotional: used during emotional passages to enhance the effect.
  • Confident: used at the beginning of a speech to emphasise the speaker's authority and confidence.
  • Emphatic: used before a word or phrase to make it stand out.

The first three are used automatically by everybody whilst speaking and the fourth is self-explanatory (though not used often enough). The fifth is also quite simple and can be used to great effect when the speaker seems to have difficulty getting a word out because of the emotions she is feeling. The two you need to really master are the Confident and the Emphatic pauses.

Confident Pauses

This is a pause employed to demonstrate the speaker's confidence and authority. It is most often used at the beginning of a speech, but can be equally effective at the beginning of a new section. David Cameron paused for so long at the beginning oh his speech at the Conservative Party Conference last year (about 15 seconds) that he probably had TV viewers reaching to adjust their sets!

The reason it is so effective is that it requires real balls to do it. Can you imagine standing before a large audience (perhaps at the company's annual conference) and simply standing there, with the spotlights and every eye in the room on you, in total silence? No, most people can't.

Which is why its use spells C-O-N-F-I-D-E-N-C-E.

If one of your personal objectives is to increase or underline your own stature, force yourself to do this (only if the audience is large, though; doing it with an audience of three or four might be a bit disconcerting for them!).

Wait until the applause has died down. Then, instead of speaking immediately (many speakers even start to speak before this has happened), simply look your audience in the eye. But look right around the audience; don't concentrate on the first couple of rows. Your brain will be screaming at you to speak, but STEEL YOURSELF.

Slowly say each word of your opening sentence to yourself to give your brain something to do. A pause of five seconds will seem like five minutes. Don't worry; it really is only five seconds. It's just the adrenaline making you think it's longer.

Watch how President Obama does this about 02:45 into his Inauguration Address He waits until the tumultuous applause has virtually died down and says, 'I stand here today' (pause) humbled (pause) by the task before us.'

To watch a real master at this, watch Adolf Hitler opening his speech in the propaganda movie, 'Triumph of the Will.' Note how he not only waits for the applause to die away, but then stands motionless for about NINE seconds afterwards in total silence (apart from the almost comic 'panto villain' music heard faintly in the background), deliberately heightening the tension and building up the audience's anticipation.

Emphatic Pauses

Mastering the emphatic pause is one of the greatest skills you can master as a speaker, especially if it comes after what I call a Signpost.

A signpost tells the audience that you are about to say something important, and is something that has been used by most great orators. It says to the audience, 'Listen carefully, this next bit is something worth hearing.'

Let's look at some examples. What is President Kennedy's most memorable and oft-quoted line? That's right 'Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.' How did he signpost this? By saying:
'And so my fellow Americans (pause) .....'

What is Abraham Lincoln's most remembered phrase? 'Of the people, by the people and for the people.' How did he signpost it? By saying: 'That we here highly resolve (pause) .....'

Patrick Henry's famous Close ('Give me liberty or give me death!') was signposted by the words: 'I know not what others say, but as for me (pause) .....'

One of the most famous metaphors in the English language is Churchill's 'Iron Curtain.' When he first coined this phrase in a speech in the US in 1946, he signposted its importance with the words:
'It is my duty to place before you certain facts about the present situation in Europe (pause) .....'

The above examples all emphasize phrases, but it can also be used with great effect to underline a particular word. In Franklin D Roosevelt's famous 'Pearl Harbour' speech in 1946, he wanted to underline the fact that Japan had attacked the naval base without a declaration of war, and chose to use the unusual word, 'infamy' (definition: 'evil reputation' or 'a state of extreme dishonour'). Knowing that it would capture the headlines the next day, he emphasised it like this:
"Yesterday, December 7th, a date which will live in ....... (pause) infamy, Pearl Harbour was suddenly and deliberately attacked."

An effective point at which to do this is just before a summary close, e.g.
'I hope I've given you a lot to think about this afternoon, but if you remember just one thing from my presentation, I want it to be this (pause) ... '

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