Mark Twain said, “The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”

When we think about presentations and public speaking, we might have negative thoughts about silence and pauses. Why is that? And why exactly do we pause when we are speaking? Today we’ll uncover the science behind these questions.

Our Silence Bias

A presentation is not just made up of words. As I’m sure you are well aware, many things are at play when a speaker stands up to deliver a presentation. Things like presentation graphics, audience response, media, rate of speech, body language, voice intonation, facial expression, and pauses. Have you ever thought about verbal gaps or pauses, as being something that can add to a presentation?

If not, that’s okay. We usually think about silence as simply the absence of speech, but it’s far more than that. In fact, in the Akan language spoken in Ghana, silence in some situations is taught as “above” or “beyond” words. Native speakers of the language understand it as a tool they can use when words simply won’t suffice.

However, English speakers often think of silence as negative. I was a radio broadcaster for a few years, and silence on the radio waves was the worst thing that could happen in that field. In fact, it’s called “dead air.” In a world inundated with noise, silence can be scary. Particularly in public speaking situations. But why?

In 2004, Per Linell identified what he called our written language bias. His research shows that we still use “methods and models to study spoken language [that] are based on the methods used to standardize and explore written language.” That means we try to make our “live,” fluid, spoken language sound like written, edited, static language. But it’s simply not the same thing. So because of this lingering bias, we tend to think pauses don’t belong in speech, when the truth is that we simply can’t avoid them.

Why We Pause

There are several reasons why we pause during our everyday speech patterns. The three most common reasons are: to breathe, to think, and to take turns.

1. To Breathe

Take a deep breath in. Now, say the alphabet as many times as you need to until your breath runs out. Pay attention to how it feels to have less and less air in your lungs to be able to speak. Given that we normally breathe over 17,000 times a day, why don’t we feel that same running-out-of-air-must-breathe-in sensation more often? It turns out that humans don’t just simply speak until they run out of air, pause to breathe in, and then starting speaking again. Beatrice Szczepek Reed’s 2010 research shows that we don’t pause haphazardly, but rather we plan where to pause, following certain constraints such as speech rhythm. We understand that there are typical places to pause, like the end of a sentence or phrase. We normally take breaths during one of those linguistic breaks. The good news is, this comes naturally for us. We do it without even thinking about it.

2. To Plan

Another reason we pause is to think about what we’ll say next. These are called cognitive pauses because our brains need to stop in order to prepare and plan. You’ve probably noticed this when you are trying to explain something to someone and you stop to think of exactly the right word to get your point across. You stop speaking so that your brain can laser focus on recalling what it is you want to remember or say. In presentations, you might have a planning pause if you’ve forgotten what you want to say next.

3. To Take Turns

The first two types of pauses are the most common in presentations. The third type of verbal pause is more of a social construct. Sometimes we stop talking to indicate that we have no more to say. Or we could pause to give others a chance to jump in. This shows that we understand the back-and-forth nature of conversation. So we pause to see if anyone else wants to respond or lead the conversation for a while. In a presentation setting, this third type of pause might be used if the speaker asks a question that warrants a verbal response from the audience.

We’ve uncovered much of why we tend to have negative views about silence and also why we can’t avoid pauses in our speech. At Ethos 3, we believe that it’s important to know the science behind all of the tools we use to communicate with our audiences. And silence is one of those tools.

Ready to learn more about the science-driven methods that drive our presentation training? Get in touch with us now.


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