Most presenters are afraid to stop talking. They dread silence. They feel the need to fill every second of their presentation with sound. And that usually means the sound of them talking.
There may be any number of reasons for this fear. They may be afraid that silence signals a mistake of some kind. Or uncertainty. Or a lack of mastery over their content. As noted in a previous post, sometimes it is because they are afraid that if they stop talking, someone will ask a question.
But silence in a presentation should not be feared. It should be used. Musicians understand the uses of silence and the effect that silence can have on an audience. Playwrights too.
As All About Jazz (AAJ) notes, “Silence isn’t just the canvas upon which music is painted. It’s one of the colors on the composer’s palette.”
When the audience hears silence it can be attention getting. Silence may cause them to observe more closely and listen more attentively. If the audience member has been paying attention, a strategic pause can, as AAJ says, “…raise a listener’s expectation of what is about to come…”
If an audience member has been only half listening. A brief pause represents a change in the background noise. The sudden and unexpected sound of silence can literally cause them to raise their head. What just happened? Did I miss something? The silence invites them in.
The uses of silence
Here is a classic rock song “Badge” from Cream that knows when to “stop talking.”
Check out the breaks between the 0.34 to 0.37 and 1.04 to 1.07 second marks. The three seconds of each break sustain but add no new notes. These breaks build anticipation. The song is too soon over by the first break, but where will it go next? Will it resume, or as in the second break, change into something new? When the arpeggios come at the 1.07 mark, it is a triumphant resolution to the anticipation and a sweet reward for the listener. Silence can be used for dramatic effect (but should never be used more than once or twice in the same presentation).
Silence can also be used for practical purposes. It is always good to add a pause between the “beats” in your presentation. As your presentation transitions from one section to the next, there is a natural beat change; a change in rhythm or tempo. The Marketing section is different from the finance section. The competition section is different from the product feature section. A pause signals to the audience that this scene has ended and we are moving on to something new.
During the purposeful pause the presenter is usually doing something. You are giving something that you said time to sink in. You may be looking for a reaction from the audience. How is what you said sitting with the audience? You may be thinking and deciding where to go next based on how the audience has reacted.
Active thinking is an important part of the presentation. A presentation should not be canned. It is a live real-time event. If you pause to think, don’t just show the audience, “I am thinking.” Invite the audience into your thinking process and experience. Ask the audience to join you in thinking and give them a second to do so.
The silent pause offers a role to the audience. If you ask a rhetorical question, give the audience time to formulate their response. But the pause does not have to beg an answer to a question. In Billy Joel’s song “River of Dream,” the audience becomes a participant in the song by keeping the beat in their heads during the breaks. The audience is actually able to fill three seconds of the song on their own.
See the breaks at the 1.44 and 2.42 second mark. Again, each break is for 3 secs. If the break is any longer, the audience is in danger of losing the beat and the effect would be lost.
Using the right amount of silence
How much silence can you afford? Too much of a good thing is never good. If you employ too many pauses, they will quickly become annoying to the audience. You are in danger of asking your audience to do too much work. They have too many blanks to fill in. But a few (two to three) judicious or spontaneous pauses of the right duration can work wonders for your message.
How long a silence can the audience endure? You always have three seconds to work with. The audience will always grant you three seconds of silence. If you are performing a physical action during the period of silence the three seconds can be extended a little, i.e. when a playwright adds stage business. If you are crossing back to the podium to effect a slide change or read a quote you have introduced, the audience will stay with you. But generally, if the signal goes blank for more than three seconds the audience starts to think “code red,” we have lost the patient.
So don’t be afraid to stop talking and add a little silence to your presentation palette.