By 2013, the drought had grown dangerous. Local Colorado residents desperately needed rain. They hoped for it, they wished for it, they organized congregational prayer sessions for it. Some even danced for it. But nothing came. And the drought grew worse by the day. But then, one summer day, something happened. The weather services started predicting rain. Finally! When the first raindrops hit the ground, Coloradans rejoiced! They were finally receiving the rain they so desperately needed. But their joy was not to last.
The rain came, but it kept coming. Day after day, the rain fell upon the drought-ridden region. It was too much. The soil could not absorb all the rainwater. And so began the worse flooding in the memory of Colorado. An estimated 144 people died and damages reached nearly $2 billion (according to CNN money). And what was the cause? According to National Geographic’s Freshwater Fellow, Sandra Postel, the droughts played a major role. “Drought tends to harden the soil, she said. When rains do come, less of the water can absorb into the ground, so it quickly runs off the land.” Had the rainfall been spread out, instead of coming all at once, then much of the flooding could have been avoided.
The same principle applies when speaking. If you let loose a torrent of ceaseless words upon your audience, then those words are just going to run off. In fact, just like in Colorado, the more desperately they need your words, the less they are able to take in at once. And if you insist on a monsoon of words and concepts, you might trigger a flash flood and end up doing more harm than good.
The fourth unbreakable rule is to speak between pauses. Your audience expects some time to digest your message. Have you ever heard a speaker who relentlessly pushes more and more information in through your ears? He might make a good point, but he plows through it so quickly that you’re not really sure what you just heard. And you don’t have time to think about it because he’s already moved on, ripping through his points like an auctioneer. This isn’t good speaking. And it isn’t an effective way to convey your message.
As a speaker, silence is your friend. You have to become extremely comfortable with silence. Silence gives you control. At any moment during your speech, you can pause your progress, step into silence and control the whole room. Very often, speakers will talk too quickly because they are nervous. They mistakenly think that talking gives them control. But the opposite is true. This frantic talking radiates insecurity. It’s like playing hot potato with your words because you aren’t strong enough to hold one and let it sink in. So you’ve got to prove to your audience how confident and secure you are. If you can hold the tension of silence longer than they can, then you are the stronger one. And, as a speaker, you should be the stronger one. You should be strong enough to command the room.
Pauses help people to comprehend your message. If you have a lot to say, and you’re passionate about it, then you may be tempted to give your audience all you possibly can. But that’s a mistake. It’s called data download and it’s hopelessly ineffective. Imagine attending the symphony orchestra and musicians only played and held constant notes. It would be exhausting, and would probably people to walk out. Why? Because its the pauses between notes that create a melody. It’s the pauses that allow you to hear and process the individual notes. It’s the same way in speaking. Your audience needs a chance to catch their breath and process your words. The brain only works so fast and you have to respect that. Research shows that short periods of silence helps people to comprehend your message. And as a speaker, this is of utmost importance.
Pauses give you audience a chance to savor your most powerful points and stories. There are two ways to eat a piece of cake. Your first choice is to eat it as quickly as possible, stuffing it into your mouth and swallowing it in one mighty bite. Your second choice is to eat it slowly, taking small bites and fully savoring all the little flavors. Now which one do you think is the more enjoyable experience? Almost everybody answers the second, slower way. But the problem is that it requires self-control. You’ve got to resist the rush to the finish line and enjoy the process of getting there. The same is true with speaking. There’s a temptation to plow forward and give the audience all your points in one mighty bite. But you’ve got to have the self control to let them savor each of your smaller, flavorful bites. You do this through pauses. When you pauses before and/or after a powerful point/story, then you allow your audience to savor and enjoy it. And just like with the cake, this will make the it a more enjoyable experience.
But pauses are about more than pleasure, they also allow you to emphasize your important points. Think about what happens during the typical speech. Audience members hear hundreds of sentences and dozens of concepts. How are they supposed to know which of these concepts are the most important? Well, the ones they hear most often are probably important. And so are the ones that you say with a special tone or volume. But pauses offer another way to call attention to a point. Just imagine a speaker making a point and then pausing for 5 whole seconds before repeating the point in a more solemn tone. There would be little doubt that this point was worth paying attention to, remembering and (hopefully) applying.
There’s another benefit of pausing that’s worth mention. Pausing give you a chance to catch up and find your place. Sometimes you reach the end of a story and you don’t immediately remember your next point. Pausing can give you the precious moments you need to jog your memory and move forward. But how can this be, you might ask. I thought pausing was a reflection of control and composure? It is. It pulls double duty. Not only does it project control, but it allows you to regain control when you’ve lost your place. With all of these benefits, it makes you wonder why so many speakers are afraid of silence.
So how do you pause correctly? It’s simple. Just shut your mouth, stand with strong posture and stop making noise. A pause of three to five seconds is usually a good amount. The first time you try it, it will feel like a lifetime. But over time it will start to become natural. When you write your speaking notes, indicate the places where you want to pause. This will help remind you to treat the pause as a part of your speech and give it the due attention it deserves.
As a final note, let’s discuss the way not to pause. A proper pause should be silent, and if anything else comes out of your mouth, that’s a verbal pause and it’s a huge negative. Verbal pauses are extremely common in every day speech and consist of phrases such as, “like”, “ummm”, and “you know.” To be a great speaker, you must eliminate all of your verbal pauses. You must be able to be completely silent. Verbal pauses are a distraction that show your audience that you are not a professional. Don’t let this be you. Become conscious of your verbal pauses and work diligently to eliminate them. Ask a friend to count your verbal pauses and correct you when possible. Because your use of them may have become a habit, it will probably take some time to replace. But don’t lose heart. It’s definitely worth it.
This is from our “10 Unbreakable Rules of Speaking”