5 Tips for Powerful Pauses

When we speak out loud, we can’t rely on punctuation to help our audience follow along. Instead, create emphasis or convey emotion and humor by using the pause as spoken punctuation.

Lisa B. Marshall
4-minute read
Episode #193

Part of learning to read is learning about punctuation. Imagine what it would be like to read without punctuation. There would be no periods, commas, semicolons, or paragraph breaks to tell you when one thought ends and another begins. Key ideas and messages might even be lost as a result. In this episode, we’ll discuss how to use pauses to create punctuation in public speaking.>

I recently read this in my Twitter feed: 

“Let’s eat Grandma! Let’s eat, Grandma. Punctuation saves lives.”

I liked it because it was a silly way to show the importance of correct punctuation. Of course, punctuation tells you where, when, and even how long to pause. In public speaking, though, we don’t have punctuation. But that doesn’t mean we ramble on with run-on sentences. In our speech, we create spoken punctuation with the pause.

Today, I’ll cover five tips for powerful pauses:

Tip #1: Open on a Positive Note

If you’ve ever watched the Oscars or the Grammys, you’ve seen how quickly the winners have to rattle off their speeches. But the most seasoned performers still take a brief moment when they get on stage to pause and smile before they begin their thank yous. This gives them an air of confidence and lets them briefly compose their thoughts. When you’re introduced as a speaker, take a few seconds to smile, make eye contact, and pause before you start.

Tips #2: The Paragraph Break

Use pauses to break up the sections of your speech. Pause longer between the main sections, such as the introduction, the body, and the conclusion. In fact, you may consider using that time to transition and physically move to a new spot. Use shorter pauses to divide your smaller points. Sometimes I’m so excited to present, I move through the material too quickly, so I like to use the bullets symbols in my presentations to remind me to take a brief pause. In speech it is critically important to purposely include these longer and shorter pauses to verbally highlight and indicate that a new idea is being introduced.

See Also: Read, Memorize, or Use Notes?

Tips #3: Emphasize a Word or Phrase

In addition, when we write an email or post a message on social media, we use cues such as bold, italics, and all caps to emphasize important words and phrases.

In verbal communication, using the pause effectively can do this work for us. To gain the attention of your audience, pause intentionally before you say something important. You can even add more emphasis with your words. “If you remember only one thing today, I’d like for you to remember this. <PAUSE>…” Then say whatever your important point is. Keep in mind the pause should be long enough to build suspense. Keep eye contact with your audience to signal that this pause is intentional.

Another option is to pause just after the important word or phrase briefly to let your audience digest what you’ve just emphasized. 

Tips #4: Convey Emotion and Humor

A pause can also convey emotion. For example, if you’ve just made a passionate plea for financial support, use the pause afterward to let your message sink in. If you’re moving from a light part of the speech to something more serious or dramatic, use a longer pause to signal the change in emotion.

Comedians are masters of the pause. If you’re using humor in your speech, the timing of your pause is everything. The pause needs to be long enough to allow your audience to think about the punch line. If you move too quickly, the audience doesn’t have enough time to process and then laugh. For example, the pause might indicate an ending where there really isn’t one.

 Listen to this line:

“Always remember you’re unique, just like everyone else.”

Did you laugh? Probably not. It should be delivered like this:

“Always remember you’re unique”

[pause long enough for audience to agree with you]

“Just like everyone else.”

[pause for the laugh].

It’s funnier with the pauses. 

See Also: Thinking on Your Feet

Tip #5: Get Back on Track

Finally, pauses can help you deal with the unexpected. They can also help calm your nerves. Use a quick pause to check your notes or get a drink of water.  Take a moment to pause if you get flustered or blank out. Reiterate your previous point and move on to the next one you remember. Live stage actors do this when they forget their lines.

Do you fill in empty spaces in a speech with ums, ahs, and you knows? Technically, these are called “disfluencies” and they can be distracting to your audience. Practice using a pause where you would normally insert a disfluency.

Using the pause purposefully for effect is an underutilized speaking technique. It’s a powerful tool when used intentionally. As Mark Twain once said, The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.

This is Lisa B. Marshall, The Public Speaker.  Passionate about communication; your success is my business. 

Check out my new book, Smart Talk, at www.smarttalksuccess.com and register for my upcoming free webinar: Smart Talk: Making Powerfully Persuasive Presentations. 


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About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.