Silence is golden…

If you’ve been coached at all, or read up much on public speaking and delivery of presentations, you’ve probably heard that pacing, tone and cadence of how you deliver that speech is of an utmost importance.

In particular, silence – you know, the part where you’re not talking – is recognized as among the most important element of your delivery.

The major issue is that when we’re delivering a presentation or speech, we tend to avoid the silence as it feels really uncomfortable. We fill it with speech ticks like “ah”, “um”, “like” and other noises or sentences.

Silence can, and should be, embraced as a major tool in your presentation tool kit.

But, why is this? The answer is quite simple: we listen to silence.

Our brains on silence.

So what exactly is going on in our brains during those dramatic pauses? Your brain perks up and pays attention.

According to a 2006 article published in the Society of Neuroscience, the same areas of your brain that are active when you’re listening to something are active when everything is silent. In other words, our brains listen to silence. This research lead to the conclusion that our brains are anticipating something to happen and essentially become hypersensitive to anything that might come next.

However, further research done in 2010 went against this finding and identified two separate sets of synapses that are responsible for hearing – one for processing noises, and one for processing silence, with no overlap between the two.

This put a finer point on the previous findings which meant that these two processes – one that detects the sudden onset of sounds, and one that detects the disappearance of sounds – are essential in how we process speech. Without knowing where words or sentences end it would be very confusing to communicate.

So how can you use silence?

Master the pause. As part of general best practices in speaking and giving a talk, everyone should learn how to take advantage of the “pause”. Not too short, not too long – find the Goldilocks-zone of pauses.

Statement emphasis. Now that you know how our brains react to silence, you can use this to place emphasis on certain parts of your presentation or talk. Consider pauses before major conclusions or takeaways – but definitely not in a “drum roll please” kind of way.

Crowd control. Ever have a room get out of control with debate? While you should probably avoid getting into this situation in the first place by setting up some ground rules ahead of time (e.g. “hold your questions and comments until the end”), try being quiet next time instead of raising your voice as a means to regain people’s attention. Disclaimer: This is highly dependent upon your type of audience.

An Example

In the last week or two, Emma Watson’s speech to the UN blew up in social media and on YouTube. In addition to it being a well laid out and incredibly passionate speech overall – pay attention to her cadence and her use of silence to grab your attention and put emphasis on her statements.

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How will you use silence to your advantage in your next presentation?


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