A pause is a tool of immense power. It facilitates and improves communication, benefiting both speaker and listener – and yet it is woefully underused. Whether you’re making a presentation, teaching a course, giving your views at a meeting, answering questions at an interview or simply telling a story to your friends, a few seconds’ pause at strategic moments will enhance your performance and make your message more memorable.
Pausing prevents information overload
Your audience needs time to take in and process what you’re saying. If you push on relentlessly, those who stay with you will end up with headaches from the effort of keeping up, while the less dedicated will soon relinquish the struggle and mentally wander off.
The punctuation, paragraphs and chapters in a textbook or novel are not there for aesthetic reasons. Punctuation helps us to interpret the meaning, paragraphs show us where one idea ends and a new one begins and chapters are way-markers, resting places where we can reflect on what we’ve learnt so far before pressing on to find out more.
The same principles apply in speaking. Micro pauses act as punctuation, giving shape to your phrasing and emphasis and conveying the meaning you intend your words to have. Brief pauses are like paragraphs and long pauses close one chapter before opening another.
To use a more modern metaphor, from the audience’s point of view, you can see the Pause button as a Save button. Enter too much information into a computer without clicking Save and you risk it all getting lost.
Pausing gives your message impact
If there’s a message you really want the audience to hear and remember, you can repeat it, you can say it loudly, you can back it up with visual aids, but the most economical – and often the most successful – method is to put some white space around it with a couple of pauses.
Returning to the textbook, if you visualise a page of dense text, even if the message is repeated several times, it’s rather daunting and impenetrable. On the other hand, if you see a page that’s blank except for one phrase printed in the middle of it, you’re likely to remember that phrase.
Pausing allows you to gather your thoughts
When you’re saying something you’ve rehearsed, pauses provide the off-beat during which you can check your notes and stay on track. When you’re speaking spontaneously in a situation where it matters, give yourself a few seconds to come up with words that communicate your meaning accurately and effectively. Even if you’ve been asked a question and people are waiting for you to answer, don’t feel you’ve got to start speaking immediately: wait until you’ve got a handle on what you want to say.
In the cut-and-thrust of normal life, we begin sentences without knowing how they’re going to end and often take several swings at an idea before we feel we’ve expressed it satisfactorily. Of course, a lot of unconscious processing is going on: according to this psycholinguistic study, we plan our spontaneous speech in various ways, depending partly on the complexity of the content. Under pressure, as is well known, it’s far more difficult to verbalise thoughts coherently. Instead of plunging straight in and thrashing around until you find your flow, take a few seconds to decide which direction you want to go.
As well as helping you to make a more articulate contribution to the meeting or discussion, pausing before you open your mouth can save you from knee-jerk reactions you later regret. Something I like about Mindfulness is its emphasis on taking time to turn things over and look at them objectively before choosing a response. In fact, this is what makes the difference between reacting and responding – a very useful distinction in every sphere of life, whether we’re interacting with a boss, a client, an interviewer, a trainee, a colleague, a friend, our children or our parents.