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Pauses Part 2 – How to improve your speaking

Pauses Part 2 – How to improve your speaking


Effectively using pauses in speech will make your ideas easier to understand.

If you do it right, your listener will not be aware of your pauses, but you will communicate your ideas more persuasively and clearly.

If you do it wrongly, your listener will find it hard to understand your opinion, and you may seem less believable and reliable.

In this second blog post, Part 2, we are going to look at how pauses are used to:

2. Show emotion (how you feel e.g. happy, sad, angry, etc.) 
3. Help your audience understand you (they need time to think)
4. Improve your oral presentation pauses (let you breathe, have a moment to think, get a drink or change slides in a presentation)
5. Final rules

2. Emotion

Pauses help to show emotion. Where and how long you pause will change depending on whether you are showing sadness, anger, happiness, or some other emotion. Think about how you sound when you show emotion when you talk with a friend or someone in your family. 

For example, if you want to show the audience you are enthusiastic about something, what do you do? Think what you do normally do when you’re excited and enjoy something. Most people speak more loudly, more quickly, and smile. 

Once you know what you do normally, do the same in front of the audience, but exaggerate everything. The size of the audience affects how much you exaggerate. If you’re talking to three people, you don’t need to exaggerate at all. If you’re talking to thirty people, you exaggerate slightly. If you’re talking to three hundred people, you exaggerate more.

For examples of people speaking with emotion, try watching TV shows like sitcoms (situation comedies), soap operas or reality TV shows.  Some TV shows that are popular with students learning English are: Friends, the Big Bang Theory, Grey’s Anatomy, Game of Thrones, the Simpsons, Home and Away, Neighbours, Survivor or Masterchef.

3. Helping the audience understand

Pausing also gives the audience time to make a connection between your idea and their own experiences and knowledge. If your audience feels connected to your speech, then they will also be more interested in your ideas. This can make you more persuasive. If your audience is interested in your talk, then this can help make you feel more confident too. 

Thought Groups

Thought groups are groups of words that make one idea. If you add a short pause (like the Comma Pause = about ¼ - ½ second) between these thought groups, then the listener has time to think, process and understand each part of the sentence. Native English speakers need this help as much as non-native English speakers!

Try saying the following two sentences out loud. Which is easier to listen to?

  • Why would you go to school when you could work and earn money?
  • Why would you go to school [pause] when you could work [pause] and earn money?

In the 2nd sentence, the three thought groups are separated by pauses. Remember, in English, it is the speaker’s job to be very clear. It is NOT the listener’s job to work hard to understand the speech. So, pausing is an important way to be clear.

For more information about thought groups, try these links:

4. Presentation pauses 

Pausing is normal and healthy. Normal pauses will not confuse an audience.

Some of the normal pauses are: 

  • Breathing!
  • Swallowing
  • Stopping for a drink
  • Checking your notes
  • Changing visuals or slides

Pausing helps your mind “catch up” to your mouth. It will give you time to think. If you need time to think, people often use a filler sound — ah, er, um. These make you sound nervous, unprepared or like you haven’t practiced. A short pause (like the Comma Pause = about ¼ - ½ second) is better. 

It will also help your voice. Drinking and swallowing help keep your mouth wet. This stops you coughing and it can improve your pronunciation. 

Changing visuals or slides

The audience needs time to study the new slide. So it is good to pause when you change to a new picture. Then, when you speak, the audience knows that they have to listen to you again. If the picture is simple, then have a short pause (about ¼ - ½ second). If the picture is more complicated, then use a medium or long pause (about ½ - 1 second or longer). A simple picture is usually better though. 

5. Final Rules

There are no strict rules for how long to pause for. Good pause lengths will change because of: your speaking style, the type of information, presentation length, who your audience is, and what is normal for your cultural.

Use these general rules:

  • Keep the length of your short, medium and long pauses the same. e.g. the Comma Pause is always shorter than the Full Stop Pause.
  • For long pauses, pause longer than you think is necessary, perhaps longer than is comfortable for you.
  • Slow down, add gestures, and smile. People often speak quickly when they are nervous. 
  • Practice speaking out loud and get help from friends, classmates or teachers about how you use pauses. Try these questions: 
    • Did my pauses seem natural? 
    • Were there any awkward pauses? 
    • Was I speaking too fast or too slow?
    • Record yourself (sound and video) and watch your performance. Did you use pauses well? 
    • Practice, practice, and practice again!

For more ideas about Pauses, read the full article by Andrew Dlugan (2012) called  Speech Pauses: 12 Techniques to Speak Volumes with Your Silence

For more information about Thought Groups, try these links to Elemental English:

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