PSU Insight

Speak with Power and Passion

Power of the Pause

I cannot stress enough how important the pause is in your spoken presentations.

woman holding finger to lips for silence

Pauses have a variety of uses. One of the most important is as "vocal punctuation". Consider the following sentence —

I cannot stress one idea enough how important the pause is in your presentation but I think I can illustrate it I'll give a short segment of text without any punctuation like this now try to read it its not particularly easy to read without the pronunciation dont you think

Now consider the same exact words, but with punctuation:

I cannot stress one idea enough: how important the pause is in your presentation — but I think I can illustrate it! I'll give a short segment of text without any punctuation... like this. Now try to read it. It's not particularly easy to read without the pronunciation, don't you think?

The difference between the two segments is pretty dramatic ― reading the words without punctuation is difficult! But punctuation breaks up the words into little chunks that are easier to understand.

Punctuation in your written speech is analogous to pauses in your spoken presentation. Properly used, pauses break up your spoken presentation into smaller chunks that are more easily understood by your audience.

In fact, since you're used to using punctuation in your written materials, you can oftentimes use your written punctuation as a guide to the length of pauses in your presentation. You want to pause ever-so-slightly between words or phrases, so the words don't run together. You pause a little longer at commas.

You pause even longer at the end of sentences. And you pause even longer than that at the end of paragraphs.

When you follow these simple guidelines, you'll find that you'll automatically pause the appropriate amount, just by pronouncing your punctuation as pauses.

There are other times when pausing is appropriate; these too have an analogy in writing. When you're writing words or phrases that you want to emphasize, you either italicize them or bold them.

Writing for emphasis sometimes translates into pausing for emphasis. So when you want to emphasize a word in your speech (that you might emphasize by bolding it in your written speech), pause slightly before or after you say the word.

For example, "that is not appropriate behavior" could be spoken as "that is not (slight pause) appropriate behavior". (Try saying "that is not appropriate behavior" with and without the pause. Notice the difference?)

Finally, another place to put a pause ― a really long pause ― is at the end of your presentation. A common mistake of beginning speakers is to dash off the stage the instant you're finished. Although this is understandable, it's a poor way to end your presentation.

So instead of dashing off the stage, stand there for a few seconds and look back at your audience. Depending on the venue, they might acknowledge your presentation with applause ― if so, stand there and accept it graciously.

But even if your audience doesn't applaud (for instance, if you're giving a technical review), it's still appropriate for you to give them a moment or two to digest what you've just said.

So just as you should pause at the end of a sentence, and pause longer at the end of a paragraph, remember to pause just a bit longer at the end of your presentation. It's a fitting way to end it.