For a presenter, this means two critical techniques become essential: maintaining eye contact so you can pick up the visual signals, and pausing so that you give that communication feedback space in which to happen.
Significant pauses and silences in normal conversation are rare. Normally one or other of the people involved fills the gap to avoid that uncomfortable moment. In business conversations using silence to encourage people to give up a bit more of what they are really thinking can be an advantage as we discussed in this article.
With presenting you are the only person speaking. So the void won’t get filled, unless you choose the fill it; which means you have complete control over how you use it and the effect it has. The pause becomes an entirely different mechanism for you to enhance your powers of communication.
How pauses help your audience
Pauses help your audience digest your message. You can feed in important pieces of information in a gradual and measured way, rather than as a relentless stream of facts and ideas that they have to process quickly.
The pause means you can use your eye contact skills to get affirmation that one fact has been grasped before you move onto the next.
If you don’t allow people time to reflect on what you’ve just said, analyze it and check they understood and agreed with it, you run the risk of losing them when you try to give them more information.
If they aren’t able to completely understand 2-3 of your key messages they may simply give up and stop listening altogether – which I’m sure is something we’ve all done when listening to people without good presentation skills.
At the very worst they may listen intermittently then switch off while they digest some information, set it in their own context and then start listening again. They are only getting part of the message and missing who knows what.
When to pause and for how long?
Opinions differ as to the frequency and length of pauses. Usually, I recommend a pause at least every 15-20 words, possibly more, depending on the gravity of the content and the audience.
When you start practicing this it will seem unnatural. Don’t worry – your audience will appreciate it and it usually sits comfortably as part of your presentation style after a while.
Place your pauses so that the emphasis occurs where you most want the audience to focus. Remember, you have control over this. Pauses can ultimately decide whether your message is understood and accepted - so use them carefully and strategically.
The lengths of your pauses also need to vary, depending on the message you have just delivered and the impact you want to create. Pauses of between half a second and a couple of seconds may seem like an eternity to you, but will pass almost unnoticed by your audience. Remember, they are busy digesting what you’ve just said.
How pauses help you
The pause gives you the time to do several things: first, think about the next thing you need to communicate; second, re-set your mind by checking your place in your notes; and third, make eye-contact with people in your audience to check that they are still listening and have grasped your latest message.
Pauses also help you to slow your pace of speech and breathing. Again, it’s about staying in control, and looking and sounding confident.
Practice your pauses
There’s no point standing up to make a presentation and hoping that the right pauses will fall into place. They are a key feature of your delivery and need to be practiced. Pausing at different places within the same sentence can completely change the meaning and impact. So rehearse out loud with the pause in different places to ensure that it is placed where it delivers the effect you need to create.
Make sure you pause
One of the biggest challenges is to make yourself pause. It feels very unnatural, especially when you’re not a regular presenter.
There are several mechanisms that you can use to help and in no particular order these are:
- Put a line break into your notes every time you want to pause. Making your eye drop a line will encourage a pause – and acts as a silent reminder to do so. An alternative to this is to put a heavy diagonal line between the words in your text where you want to pause.
- Have a glass of water to hand and take regular sips. This will encourage you to go silent for a little while – clearly you can’t drink and speak at the same time. And remember to look at the audience while you are drinking.
- Watch your audience for signs that they are struggling to keep up with you. If you see any of these, both pause and slow down, until you start to see positive affirmations from them that they’re fully tuned in to you.
The most powerful aspect of a significant pause is that it’s a clear signal that you’ve just said something important that needs to be remembered. When you reinforce this with effective eye contact you are lifting the experience for you audience from being passive recipients to active participants in the communication.
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