Ahh….the pause.

What is a pause? It’s the momentary stop or break from whatever it is you’ve been doing. Let’s say it’s a break in speaking for our purposes. People often think that a pause signifies something terribly amiss during our presentation or conversation. Did we forget what we were going to say? Are we drawing a blank? Are we slow?

Pauses are actually an extremely useful tool in our speech arsenal. (credit to my colleague Alex for the terms speech arsenal- I love it!) If we examine the positive effects of pauses in our speech, we see that pauses serve a number of uses, including:

giving us time to breathe
giving a chance to remember our next point
giving the audience a chance to digest what we have just said
giving the audience a chance to wake up and pay attention to our next point
providing dramatic effect and emphasis

Pauses do something else, as well. They can help us appear as though we’re speaking extemporaneously, meaning, “off the top of our heads,” thinking through what we’re saying as we say it. (even if we’ve really practiced and memorized our words specifically for our presentation.)

And if we take this to the realm if inter-personal communication, that pause connotes that we are listening to the speaker, and we’re thinking before we respond.

Maybe I’ve sold you- pauses sound great. But when and how can they be bad? We know that too much of a good thing can be bad for you, right? If you’re going to pause, and you should, remember that the pause shouldn’t last for more than a second or two. Pause too long, and the audience may squirm, you may lose their attention, or they will think you’ve just derailed your presentation.

Deborah Tannen, Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University and author of numerous books on conversation, has indicated that pauses and their relative length can be a cultural thing. For example, a conference call with people from New York will sound very different from a conference call with people from California. This is because people in New York speak faster, and the slightest pause may indicate to others that the speaker is finished speaking, and someone else may begin. Californians, however, may use slightly longer pauses in their speech, and a pause doesn’t necessarily mean they are done with their point. This means that if New Yorkers and Californians are participating in the same call, there could be confusion over when someone is finished speaking and the next person should begin speaking. Click here for Dr. Tannen’s full article on the subject.

I received a call recently, and the caller let dead silences hang in the air for minutes at a time. Ever the conversationalist and someone who likes to make people feel comfortable, I kept thinking of things to say. But then I remembered that he called me. There must have been a reason for his call. So I let some of these long pauses continue, thinking that perhaps he was just waiting for me to stop talking before he attempted to tell me something. And I waited…and waited. And it was agonizingly awkward. Oh, he finally did say something. It was something that was probably difficult for him to say. Whether it was good news or bad news, I was just relieved once he finally said it. The anticipation was killing me.

So, in summary, pauses can be a great tool for public presentations, as well as intimate conversations. Timing is everything, though.

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