Why and Where to use Silence during your presentationsSarah Denholm
This topic is deceptively simple, but it’s such a crucial aid to your speaking success that it’s worth revisiting. After all, we’ve heard the basics before – but we don’t always remember to do them, right?
Few presentations have enough of them – how do yours rate?
Imagine that your presentation is like the ocean, each main point a wave rolling towards your audience who are standing on the shore. When you pause, it’s like giving your audience “signposts in the sea” of waves about what’s important in your presentation. Without these signposts, your waves of words just keep on rolling into the sand; there’s no time for the audience to reflect properly on what you’ve just said, or to draw conclusions.
Have you ever been at a presentation like that and tuned out the speaker? It’s just too hard to hang on. Plus you end up feeling breathless and rushed yourself, even though you’re just sitting listening!
This is a crucial error; when you don’t give your audience enough time to reflect, your points won’t be remembered or repeated after your talk is over.
When I first started speaking in public, I barely drew breath and would canter through my material as fast as I could in case I forgot what I wanted to say (and even at warp speed, I would still forget and get really annoyed with myself afterwards!).
Of course the poor audience didn’t care how I felt: the problem was that they never stood a real chance of reflecting on, or retaining my message.
I’ve since learned a lot about creating breathing space for the benefit of the audience. Here’s what I’ve found, and used successfully with clients:
When you pause and allow space to come in, you’ll benefit because you’ll feel more in control (and potentially less breathless), and your audience will be grateful for all these reasons:
Silence allows you to:
- come across with poise and control
- create more atmosphere
- add variety and interest to your delivery
- give your audience space to breathe too
- give your audience the best chance to absorb and retain your message
It gives them a break
As a speaker, you sometimes need to get yourself out of the way for a few moments and let the silence hang there…especially if you’re the enthusiastic type who’s dying to get your message across! Or a nervous speaker who just wants to get the whole event over with.
It’s like a one-on-one conversation
Think of those times when you have an insightful, good conversation with someone – it’s not just a ping-pong game of opinions…instead, there’s space to reflect before responding; the pace ebbs and flows naturally. This creates a richness and depth to your interaction.
As a speaker, your ‘conversation’ with your audience may be more about your conversational tone, rather than actual dialogue, but the ebb and flow concept still applies; it’s an essential element in how successfully you get your message across. And communicating a message is why you’re presenting in the first place, isn’t it?
Now you may be thinking, “yes, but aren’t I just going to end up being artificial? It just isn’t me, to slam on the brakes when I’m talking.” And if you feel like that, you’d be right. You want to come across as natural above all else, and that’s why you need to play around with the concept: experiment with adding some space to your speech. Here are some ideas about how to do this:
Where to pause
There are 4 main places to pause when you give a talk:
- before you say the first sentence
- before a main point
- after a main point
- after a question
Let’s take each place in turn:
- Before your first words. Your first great opportunity to use silence comes after you’ve stood up in front of the group (or after you’ve been introduced). By smiling (you can do it!) and waiting before you start to speak, you’ll gather both your own energy and the audience’s focus. Classical musicians use this space before the first notes very effectively. Make your audience anticipate – and metaphorically lean forwards – to hear your first words.
- Before a main point. We all drift when we’re listening to a speaker, and the good ones will let us know that there’s an important point coming up by telling us it’s about to happen, and then pausing before they deliver it. It gives the day-dreamers enough time to tune back in, and they’ll be grateful.
- That same good speaker then also pauses after the important point so that we have time to absorb what they’ve just told us, and to consider whether it’s relevant or applicable to our own lives.
- After a question. When you’ve asked a question, wait for the audience to answer in their heads: you can test how long you need to wait by answering the question in your own mind. A simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ needs only a couple of seconds; anything more complex, wait longer – 5 or 6 seconds. (It will seem like a long time!) Not waiting is frustrating for your audience, robbed of thinking time.
Could you make better use of silence? Next time you give a presentation, find the major points you want your audience to learn, and practise pausing both before and after your point. Then practise until it becomes natural. Yes, it will feel artificial at first, but it’s worth persevering! Like learning anything, we often need to go ‘over the top’ to then find that middle ground.
So, think of all the benefits and check in with yourself. Could you use more silence during your presentations?