silence: a speaker’s most valuable tool

We can all agree that peppering our speech with ‘um’ and ‘ah’, ‘you know’ and ‘I mean’ only serves as a distraction to our audience. I would add that listening to a message littered with these pointless sounds forces the listener to work much much harder. He or she must sift out all of these sounds to get to the real, useful words, and then string them together, make sentences and thus make meaning out of what the speaker is saying. That’s a lot of work. Instead of filling time with these worthless space fillers, how about just allowing there to be silence instead?

C’mon. What are you afraid of? I’ll tell you what you’re afraid of. You’re terrified that if there’s 5 seconds of silence the audience will get restless, or think you’ve lost your train of thought, or maybe someone else will start talking (OK, if you’re having dinner at my house, that last one may happen. We’ve all got a lot to say around here.) The reality is that silence is a GIFT to your audience. It takes a great deal of mental effort to keep up with what a speaker is saying, even a speaker who’s not peppering his sentences with ums and ahs. When you give your audience a moment of silence, you’re actually giving them a chance to catch up. It’s time that enables them to organize what you’ve said, and prepare for what’s coming next. How could that be a bad thing?
In fact, when you stop speaking for 5 seconds an amazing thing happens; you get the audience’s FULL attention. They look up because there’s a LACK of sound coming from you. Honest to Pete.

So if we know that silence is a really useful powerful tool, how can we use it to enhance our presentations? Here’s one way. The next time you’re presenting, when you get to something you’re about to say that’s really important, try doing it like this: Say to your audience, “I’m about to tell you something really important.” Don’t make them read your mind or guess what’s really important; TELL them! Let them know you’re about to tell them something really important and then PAUSE. Let there be silence. Then say the really important thing. (And I like to say it at a little softer volume to add impact, although never so quietly that the audience has to strain to hear me. Nothing will make an audience madder faster than having to strain to hear a speaker.) Pause. Repeat the really important thing. Pause again. Step back, and move on. Your use of silence before, during and after the telling of the really important thing allows your audience the opportunity to digest it. To let it sink in. Even to repeat it to themselves in their own heads. All in all, it’s a really important gift to them.

For those of you who are ummers and ahhers, here’s my advice. Start TODAY right this minute, paying attention to what’s coming out of your mouth. Not the next thing you’re going to say, or how the person you’re talking to is going to respond; concentrate on the words and sounds coming out of your mouth in real time. Catch yourself before the non-word can escape. Be silent instead. You can do it. I have every faith in you. You’ll be an exponentially better speaker And you’ll be heard.

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