The Master Communicator Blog

The beauty of the pause in public speaking

A well-timed bit of silence can be more eloquent than the best-chosen words when you speak. That’s the beauty of the pause. As Mark Twain said: “The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”
February 21, 2022

Public speaking is so much about the words we say and how we say them that we seldom think about the pauses. The periodic mini moments of silence or breathing are just as important as speaking. They vary in length and can be powerful allies to build trust and make your verbal communication more human.

A pause holds many benefits. For starters, a pause: 

Pauses are a natural part of human conversation. Inserting them wisely in speeches and presentations allows you to come across more credible and honest.

Pauses help you vary your rate of speech. The average professional speaks at a rate of 150 words per minute. Keeping a constant pace will make you sound mechanical. Mix up your speed when you speak—a burst of fast phrases, followed by slower ones for emphasis and significance. The pause will help you make the transitions.

Now that the benefits of the pause are clear, let’s explore the types of pauses and their lengths. 

My favorite is the pregnant pause: one that gives the impression that it will be followed by something BIG. It is filled with potential for great meaning and builds suspense while people are waiting for your next utterance.

But how long is a pregnant pause or any pause at all?

Research data demonstrates that to sound conversational in prepared speeches and presentations, you should use longer pauses of about 1.5 seconds. A medium pause of one second is typical of a transition from one thought or section to another. A short pause or breath clocks in at less than a second.

A pregnant pause lasts more than 2 seconds. It could signal to the audience that you are in trouble or fill the physical or virtual room with anticipation.

Recently, I listened to a podcast interview with Mel Robbins, motivational speaker, and author of the 5-second Rule. Robbins believes that counting back from 5 to 1 before you act on an impulse can create immediate and lasting behavior change. She has built her mega brand around the 5-second concept and touts that it is a metacognition tool backed by scientific research. It has helped many people battle addictions and adopt healthy lifestyle habits.

I wonder if 5 seconds is the magic number for a pregnant pause.

5-4-3-2-1

It may seem like too much time to be in silence. Or it could be just the trick to wake up a bored or distracted Zoom participant who may think the meeting has concluded because you stopped talking.

I will try it next time I ask participants in a virtual meeting to answer a question or weigh in on an idea. 5 seconds may be just the right amount of time to create a safe space for someone to speak up. 

What are your experiences with pausing when you deliver a prepared speech or presentation? I would love to hear from you.

Rosemary Ravinal

Business leaders and entrepreneurs who want to elevate their public speaking impact, executive presence, and media interview skills come to me for personalized attention and measurable results. I am recognized as America’s Premier Bilingual Public Speaking Coach after decades as a corporate spokesperson and media personality in the U.S. mainstream, Hispanic and Latin American markets. My company’s services are available for individuals, teams, in-person and online, and in English and Spanish in South Florida and elsewhere.

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