As a communication skills trainer, the vocal fault I observe more than any other is – failure to pause.
There are plenty of other vocal infelicities I am called on to correct, such as:
- flat, uninflected voices that utterly fail to engage;
- voices that rise at the end of sentences in the manner popularised by Australian soaps (usually a female fault, this one);
- voices that tail away at the end of sentences (usually because in his/her head, the speaker has moved on to the next thought).
But none of these habits is as great an enemy to clear communication as pause-free speech. When someone talks without pausing it’s akin to being force-fed: you can’t taste, savour, swallow or digest the intellectual food you are being offered. And you’ve no time to prepare for the next ‘mouthful’.
Pauses are the main form of punctuation available to speakers. Well-placed pauses serve a multitude of purposes, including:
- giving emphasis to an important point before it is made
- giving listeners time to absorb that point and its implications afterwards
- signalling a change of thought, pace or topic
- refocusing the attention of the audience (dare to pause for 5 seconds and everyone will be looking at you!)
I would go so far as to say that your silent pauses are as important as your spoken words. Mozart went even further when he said: ‘The music is not in the notes but in the silence between’.
Failure to pause is often a sign of nerves, lack of experience – or having too many slides to get through in the time available. And pause-free presenters often do their audience a double disservice by substituting meaningless filler words and phrases like: ‘well’, ‘okay’, ‘so’, ‘you know’ and the dreaded ‘um’.
So do yourself and your audience a favour – and learn to love the pause.