The Silence Between Words

The spaces between words or sentences in your presentation can have an effect on the words you actually speak. There are times when you should use the pause to be effective. As Mark Twain said, “The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”

Use the pause when you want the audience to anticipate what you will say next. For example you might say, “There are three pieces of information you must know before you can start the process. The first is…. Often the listener will mentally guess what the first part is before you speak it and will pay better attention because he or she is engaged mentally.

Pause before you answer a question a listener has asked. This gives you a moment to think of your answer and this silence also helps the listener know you are seriously thinking about the best answer to the question. This is a way of validating the listener and his or her question

The pause can add drama to a significant point you are going to make. For example, one of the most memorable quotations of Winston Churchill was in his first speech to the House of Commons on May 13, 1940, where he sought a vote of confidence in his completely new party government. He said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”  To speak those four words without a pause between each would weaken the overall impact of the message of courage and fortitude.

Pause if you feel the audience is not listening. This might be an extended pause as you move from one major section to another. With the silence, the listener will soon look up to check on the reason for the silence. You don’t have to say, “Pay attention”; the pause will do it for you.

There may be occasions when you pause in the middle of a sentence before you speak a word you want the audience to especially remember. Maybe the word is a new word connected to the message you want them to remember. You might say, “In order to connect well with your customers, they must see…consistency… in your service to them.”

Or you could pause to stress the punch line of your story. For example, you could say, “I was excited to visit Kansas City. But when I got there, I discovered my luggage was visiting…Tokyo!”

Finally, when the unexpected occurs during your speech, don’t panic; instead pause to figure out what action should be taken. You are speaking after a meal and somehow the kitchen staff chooses to bring out the dessert as you are in the introduction of your speech. You hear the clattering of plates and utensils as you seek to speak over the noise. Pause for a moment to decide:  1) speak over the noise, or 2) wait until the desserts are in front of the listeners.  Either would be acceptable. This might even give time for the person in charge of the event to postpone the dessert. At some point, you can quip,  “Hope my speech is as tasty as those desserts look.”

Remember it is not just the words you speak; it is also the silence between words that will affect the impact of your presentation.

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at

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