Effective tips for using pauses in speeches

Pausing adds power, drama, to your speech. Used well your silences will literally speak LOUDER than your words. Learning when to pause and how long for is a skill and like all skills improves with practice. The technique outlined below (along with 3 practice pieces) is effective and easily mastered.

Pausing in speeches -why and how to effectively.

The benefits of using pauses in speeches

If you're the speaker

A pause in the right place at the right time gives YOU:

  • time to breathe
  • time to consider what it is you're going to say next
  • time to receive, and digest the feedback you're getting from your audience
  • control over the pace of your speech
  • the means to convey emotion, emphasize or herald important information, play up a punch line, wait for laughter to settle, signal an aside, indicate how you intend the audience to interpret what you're going to say next, or have just said

If you're the listener

A pause in the right place at the right time gives YOUR AUDIENCE:

  • time to breathe
  • time to let the images or ideas you've given them 'flower' in their minds
  • time to summarize what's been said (particularly important for complex sequential ideas)
  • time to prepare for what maybe coming next
  • indications of your intent - how you want them to interpret your message

Good Pauses  &  Bad Pauses

There are differing types of pauses or silence.

Let's get straight about what sort I'm meaning here.

Panic pauses

What I'm NOT talking about are the panic pauses.

These are the unplanned 'Oh, My Goodness!' variety.

They come like thieves and whip our words away. They leave us gulping and grasping for a way to get back to the safety of what we thought we had prepared. And worse still, they seem to last for ever.

Panic pauses NEED eradication. They have no place in your speech! Click the link for tips to manage their cause: acute anxiety.

Good pauses -stop sign with a tick

Planned pauses

Planned pauses are a different story. They are your friend. Used with care, the silences of your speech will be golden. And what's more they add rhythm or a beat to your words.

Practicing Pausing

Experiment with the exercises for using pauses. Listen to yourself as you go through the exercises. You will hear a difference between conscious pausing, and pausing because you're forced to by lack of breath and running on*.

*Running on? Not pausing. Leaving no gaps between the flow of your words.

With practice, you will 'sense' the need to pause and how long to make it.

Like the speaking rate, diction, tone, pitch and volume exercises, these tips on using silence add another dimension, enriching your public speaking skills.

Have fun. Don't stress yourself trying to get it all right in one practice. Be gentle but firm. Remember habitual speech patterning IS a challenge to change. It's regular effort that succeeds.

Exercises for using pauses in speeches

Let punctuation be your guide

In printed text of any sort punctuation is used to separate words. The varying punctuation marks give us information about how we should read and comprehend them. They arrange the words in parcels, separating one unit from the next, so we can easily unwrap/decode them one at a time. In short, punctuation allows us to make sequential sense of printed material.

In speech, punctuation marks are implied in the way we deliver our words.

Below is an excerpt from Martin Luther King Junior's famous 1963 speech:

'I Have a Dream'

Read it through silently several times to get the flow of ideas.

Excerpt from I have a Dream

'This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring."

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snow capped Rockies of Colorado!
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

Now read the excerpt through out loud letting the punctuation dictate where to pause and for how long.

For example: The first sentence would go something like this:

'This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning,

(Pause for breath and for emphasis. You are starting to quote something important. Give your audience time to anticipate the new meaning.)

"My country,

(Pause, brief-just enough to underline the importance of 'my country')

'tis of thee,

(Pause, brief- just enough to underline 'thee')

sweet land of liberty,

(Pause- brief to underline 'liberty')

of thee I sing.

(Pause for breath and to give the audience time to take in the whole meaning of the previous phrases.)

Land where my fathers died,

(Pause- brief to underline message of the phrase)

land of the pilgrim's pride,

(Pause-brief to underline message of the phrase)

from every mountainside,

(Pause-brief to underline the message of the phrase)

let freedom ring."

(Pause to allow yourself breath and the audience to take in the full impact of the previous phrases.)

(To watch a video of this speech and hear how King used pausing click
I Have a Dream. It's inspiring.)

Counting to time pause length

In my teaching I used a counting system to help people with pausing. Often I marked their text or called it out during rehearsals.

  • For a full stop or period, the count was 1,2
  • For a comma, the count was 1
  • For a semi-colon, the count was 1
  • For a colon, the count was 1,2
  • Between the end of one paragraph and the start of the next the count was 1, 2, 3

If you're a musician think of the comma, fullstops/periods, colons and semi-colons as 'rests' of varying lengths.

Try the sentences from the excerpt out loud again listening for right moment to add the next phrase. Use the count method to help you.

Do use the fullstops/periods for breaths. They are the natural place to refuel. Running out in the middle of a phrase breaks the beat and the sense.

Experiment with holding the silences until you feel you have the 'beat' you want.

Have a friend listen to you trying variations and give you feedback. What you want is to sound natural.

Rate is the speed you say the words between the pauses/silences. Some phrases or sentences will naturally be faster or slower than others. The same flexibility applies to your silences. Some will be shorter than others. Experience will teach and refine your technique. Gradually your ears will take over and let you know when to start speaking again. Until then, count!

If you are a new public speaker your judgment over the length of a pause may be unreliable. We're convinced we've said nothing for an age and rush to fill the vacuum.

More practice

This excerpt comes from 'David Copperfield' by Charles Dickens. It is the opening paragraphs from Chapter One - 'I am Born'.

The sentence structure is complex and requires careful thought to make it 'live' read aloud.

Begin by reading the passage through silently, noting the natural places to pause and breathe. Then read aloud using the counting method as a guide. Remember that although you may have momentarily paused to mark a comma , the sense and forward movement of the passage must create a bridge over the gap. That means pitch, tone, volume and rate within your phrasing swings through the silence. You are not stopping to start an entirely new idea. When you begin again, you are building on what has gone before.

Let the rich 19th century 'wordiness' of Dickens' prose shine through.

Excerpt from David Copperfield: Chapter One - I am born

'Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o'clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.

In consideration of the day and hour of my birth, it was declared by the nurse, and by some sage women in the neighborhood who had taken a lively interest in me several months before there was any possibility of our becoming personally acquainted, first, that I was destined to be unlucky in life; and secondly, that I was privileged to see ghosts and spirits; both these gifts inevitably attaching, as they believed, to all unlucky infants of either gender, born towards the small hours on a Friday night.'

And another practice piece:

This time it's poetry; one of Shakespeare's Sonnets:

'Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?'

Imagine when you read you're talking to the love of your life. The poem may not use words you would but it does express the power and depth of emotion associated with a very, very special person.

Use the counting method to help you at first.

Say it through several times to get the flow of ideas sorted and then play with variations.

The central theme is that his lover is more beautiful than a Summer's day.

Even though Summer is a delight, it has strong winds that blow blossoms around, it ends too soon, and the sun is sometimes too hot or clouded over.

Shakespeare goes on to say that although everything beautiful (fair) ages either, as a result of an accident (chance) or because of its nature, the love he bears will be eternal. In his mind she will always have the qualities he cherishes, even when she is older and 'lines to time thou growest'. As long as he lives he will continue to see her this way and in doing so, will give her life. She will never die or diminish while he is there as her witness.

Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?

Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate;
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer's lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal Summer will not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest;
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

A good pause -stop sign with a superimposed tick.

Practice on a range of ordinary material

Read recipes or instruction sheets aloud making sure you give time for the audience to understand the sequence of actions needed to complete the tasks. Try informative articles on subjects you're interested in. Or humor.

Practice, practice, practice & then do it some more

That's it from me. Now it's over to you to practice the Quick and Easy Effective Tips for Pausing. 

Remember silence is a gift you give to yourself and your audience. Used effectively it can speak louder than your words. How? In stillness your words flower to their full potential. When you speak you seed the thought or image. In the pause it grows.