The Pause that Refreshes

Pause sign


Pausing is to speaking as punctuation is to writing.  Both enhance comprehension.  Pausing is perhaps even more important because a live audience can’t go back and re-listen the same way a reader can go back and re-read.

Pausing increases comprehension in several ways.  Pausing:

  • Reduces the overall rate of speaking
  • Gives the audience time to reflect
  • Clearly signals beginnings and endings of thoughts
  • Indicates importance of concepts

Not only are there benefits to the audience, there are benefits to you, the speaker!

Pausing gives you time to breathe and think and can be used instead of filler words. Instead of ah or um, just pause!

When should you pause?

Before you speak. Before you utter your first word, look at your audience, make eye contact with a few individuals.  It’s a simple way to get their attention and to allow yourself to mentally review your first line.  You probably need to hold the pause about a second longer than feels comfortable.

Naturally, as you would in conversation.  Shorter pauses where you would have commas, medium pauses at the end of a sentence and longer pauses at the end of a longer section (such as a story, or before you move on to another point).  I have noticed that people who have over-practiced from an entirely written-out speech often tend to speak without conversational pauses.  Some pause too long, but most don’t pause long enough.

Before and after important or difficult words or concepts (shorter pause before, longer pause after).  Your pause is like underlining or italicizing the concept.  You just do it before and after the word when you speak.  You just do it (very short pause) before (short pause) and (very short pause) after (short pause) the word when you speak. Audio of previous sentence: 

Before and after a punch line.  The pause, a 1- 2 second pause before the punch line, allows you to misdirect the thinking of the audience, so that the punch line is a surprise.  The old one-liner, “Take my wife . . . please” was funny because in the pause, audiences expected something like “for example.”  The word “please” was unexpected.  After a punch line pause long enough for people to laugh.  Don’t step on the laughter and cut it short.  If your line wasn’t that funny, well, just move on.

After a rhetorical question.  Even though you don’t expect an answer with a rhetorical question, give your audience time to answer it in their own minds.  Not having a significant pause and rushing on to the next point is very common.  If you don’t pause, you may frustrate your audience and you may lose some who are still briefly reflecting on the question. Try a 3 second pause.

After changing a visual (e.g. after advancing a slide in a presentation).  People need a little time to soak in a visual.  The more complex, the more time.  If anything is written on the slide, allow time for them to read it before you speak.  People don’t read and listen very well at the same time.

How can you improve your pausing?

  1. Mark your speech with pauses.  Use ellipsis (. . .),  slashes or even a tiny stop sign for longer pauses.
  2. Practice pausing, recording yourself.  Listen to the recording.  Can you pause longer?  Most people don’t pause long enough.

Silence is golden!  Do you have tips on effective pausing?



Talk from Your Belly Button: Project Your Voice

Talk from your belly button“Your carefully chosen phrases will be meaningless,” I told my presentation client, “if no one hears you.”

My soft-spoken client was preparing for an important presentation and we were doing a rehearsal in the large meeting room where it would be held.

I sat near the front.  I sat near the back.  I tried to imagine bodies absorbing the sound and the rustling of papers.  Her voice was not going to be loud enough without amplification.  Even though she was confident she could get a microphone, we also practiced how she could project in case it didn’t work.

There are five key skills to work on to better project your voice:

  • Breath support
  • Posture
  • Eye contact
  • Enunciation
  • Confidence

Breath support. Breath support is the most critical skill (and after you work on it, it can become an unconscious skill).  I often tell people “talk from your belly button.”  Your breath support comes from your diaphragm, a huge dome-shaped muscle at the bottom of the rib cage.  It is the contraction of this muscle that allows air to enter your lungs. When you breathe in, diaphragm contracts and your stomach area expands.   Too many people don’t fully engage the diaphragm, which not only reduces oxygen to your lungs, but also reduces your breath support for speaking.

Increase your awareness of your breath support from the diaphragm with this simple exercise:

  1. Lie down, face up with knees slightly bent
  2. Place your hands on your stomach
  3. Concentrate on breathing from your diaphragm, feeling the stomach rise and fall
  4. Repeat 1-3 with a book on your belly
  5. Stand up and repeat 1-3

Then, when you practice your speech, practice breathing and talking “from your belly button,” feeling the push from the diaphragm.  During a pause, breath in and then talk on the exhale.

If you sometimes feel breathless during speaking, you probably aren’t taking long enough pauses to allow for a deep, supportive breath.

Being in good physical condition, and choosing exercise that requires some deep breathing to oxygenate your body will also help you project your voice better.

Posture. Your breathing (and vocal projection) will be more effective with posture that allows your diaphragm to fully expand.  The biggest posture problem I see with speakers (and I occasionally have myself) is the shoulder hunch, where the upper body is slightly slumped forward.  One way I have dealt with that problem is by applying my “string theory” right before I speak, while I am standing.  I imagine that I am a puppet and some unseen puppet master has strings attached to the crown of my head, my chest and my hips.  The string on my head lifts my whole body, making my chin rise slightly.  The string on my chest causes my rib cage to rise. The strings on my hip bones cause my hips to come a bit forward, engaging my core muscles which help push the air up and out.

Eye contact.  When you are talking one-on-one with someone, you naturally adjust your volume.  You watch the person’s face for expressions of understanding and engagement.  Unfortunately, some speakers do not make sustained one-on-one eye contact when speaking with an audience.  They look at the audience, but don’t really see anyone.  Look to all, but speak to one.  Make sure you make eye contact with some people in the very last row, too.

Enunciation. Part of being heard and understood is based on not just volume but how clearly you speak.  Be precise with your consonant sounds.  Crisp. Move your lips.  You might have to slow down a bit to clearly articulate.  A great way to practice enunciation is to say tongue twisters. Practice some now:  Tongue Twisters 

Here’s a hard one:  The sixth sick Sheik’s sixth sheep is sick.

Confidence.  When you are nervous, your throat can tighten, constricting airflow.  And your breath may become quick and shallow.  Approach your speech with confidence, a confidence born of passion for your topic and practice!  Visualize your voice, your message reaching to the farthest corners of the room, and beyond!

For some more tips on improving your speaking voice, Toastmasters International has a free resource, which includes several exercises:

Smile! Don’t be a Stiff Presenter!

Which person’s presentation would you rather attend?

This person’s presentation?Diane's neutral face

Or, this person’s presentation?

Diane's happy face

In the top picture, I am displaying my neutral face.  I am neither happy nor sad.  But don’t I look a little sad, maybe even angry?  I also look every one of my 51 years.  Gravity is starting to give me a slightly saggy look (maybe loosing 32 pounds this year has something to do with that, too).  The honest truth is that as we age, our neutral look doesn’t look so neutral, and it ages us.

But, in the bottom picture, with my smiling face, I’ve given myself a free face lift and a mood boost to anyone looking at me (not to mention a mood boost to myself!).  When I took this picture my thought was that I was going to speak to you, my readers and the first message I wanted to get across was, “I like you.  I really like you.”

Wouldn’t you agree that an expressive face (especially a smiling face) is more attractive than a neutral face?

Then, why do so many speakers lose their authentic personality and their facial expressions when they speak before an audience?

In a nutshell:  because they are NOT being their authentic selves.

It’s all too easy to get so wrapped up in trying to not screw up that you can become self-conscious and restrained.  I see it all the time.  And, I’ve been guilty, too.  This is often a problem for the most diligent of speakers–the ones who carefully plan, write and practice their speeches, trying to get just the perfect wording.  And then, in front of an audience, they seem a little stiff.

Think about how you talk to a good friend when you are relaxed and talking about something that excites you, something you want to share.  You smile and your face shows your emotions.  You aren’t thinking about trying to be perfect or even saying things just so.  You are focused on your message and the other person.

You might have faces like this:

The I-can’t-wait-to-tell-you-this face:Diane's anticipation face

The so-here’s-the-deal face:Diane's You think so face

The you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me face:Diane's kidding face

And, the joyful, laughing face:

Diane's laughing face


So, how can you let your authentic self shine through when you speak?

Love your message.  Be passionate.  Use stories that create emotions within you and your audience.  Love your message so much that you internalize it and don’t memorize it.  Practice from key word notes and allow yourself to deviate from your so-carefully chosen phrases.  What looks good on paper doesn’t always sound conversational (and it can be hard to remember).

Love your audience.  Get to know your audience.  Set up informational interviews with a few audience members well before you speak, if you don’t already know them.  Talk to audience members before you speak.  Think of your message as a gift to your audience.  And, you, like a mom on Christmas day, can’t wait to give her children the gifts she so carefully chose, can’t wait to give your audience the gift of your message.  It’s not about you.  It’s about them.  Give your audience the “I-really-like-you smile” before you even start.  It will relax them and you!

Love yourself. Realize that we are hardest on ourselves.  You don’t need to be perfect. Really, do you feel connected with the “perfect” speaker, the one who commands the stage, but doesn’t seem real? Don’t try to achieve perfection.  You will fail.  Instead strive for excellence.

I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God’s business. –Michael J. Fox

Speak with Confidence: Stand and Move with Power and Purpose

I could tell they were all nervous.

Julia’s hands shook.  Justin kept his left hand in his pocket.  Darcy flailed her hands.

As each student came up to give their first speech in my class, their body language, and especially their hands telegraphed their speech jitters.

  • Hand in pocket
  • Clasped hands
  • Flailing hands
  • Fig leaf position
  • Hanging on to the lectern
  • Busy hands (playing with notes or pen)
  • T-Rex arms (arms close to sides, bent at 90 degrees, with hands dangling in front of body)

And except for Julia, who was well aware that her hands were shaking, none of the other students realized what they were doing with their hands.

What should you do with your hands when speaking?

I suggest a “default” position of simply having your hands hang down at your sides when you are not using them to gesture. As a former, T-Rex-style speaker, I had to consciously leave my hands at my side.  Once you have reduced the distracting hand gestures, you can usually just gesture naturally.  Probably the best way to determine what you might change is to watch yourself on video.  Or, if you are involved in a Toastmaster club, ask your evaluator (or even another person) to specifically note what you do with your hands.

Where to stand?

Don’t hide behind the lectern, at least not the whole time.  Move away now and then, especially when telling a story.

You should start and end your speech standing centered before your audience, but you can move to other parts of the stage for different points, to set a scene and to include the audience members, if on a large stage.

Remember to consider your body language and movement from the audience’s perspective.  Your right is their left, hence you should gesture to your right to refer to the past and to your left to refer to the future.

Audience view

If you have a presentation screen and can choose where to stand, have the screen on your left (the audience’s right).  People read from left to right, so if you are in the “start” position for reading, their eyes have to do less shifting.

How to stand? 

Have your feet about a shoulder-width apart with one foot slightly ahead of the other for maximum stability.  You will want to have your weight evenly balanced for good posture and to allow you to step easily in either direction.

Practice good posture.  Not only will you look more confident, but you will look taller and slimmer, too.  Plus it will be easier to breathe.  Don’t forget to breathe!  As I am getting ready to speak, I will elongate my posture by imagining a string is pulling the top of my head, my chest and my pelvis, and then I will somewhat relax the posture.

And a final tip, from the 2001 Champion of World Speaking, Darren LaCroix:

Don’t Mix Up Your Holograms.  Where ever you tell a story the audience makes a “hologram” of the scene.  Be careful not to mix up your holograms.  Darren gave the example of a speaker who told a story in which he knelt at his father’s coffin.  Later in the speech, he told a story about his family going on a picnic.  The speaker acted out spreading the picnic blanket in the same spot as–you guessed it–the coffin!  Have your stories at different parts on the stage.  Then you also can refer back to them with pointing to that same spot.

Do you have some tips on how to stand and move with power and purpose?