April 27, 2021

The Powerful Art of the Pause

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If you’ve watched much stand-up comedy, you will recognize how critical an effective pause is in delivering a joke. A pause can make or break a joke. It can leave room for laughter before a punch line even comes. 

A well-placed pause in your presentations, pitches, and meetings can have a similar impact – although it may not be a laugh you are after. 

Timing is everything. 

In this video, pauses are critical to his bit. Without the pauses it would be 50% less funny… my made up research shows. Timing is critical.

If you want to study how timing impacts an audience, watch comedians perform. Modern masters like Jerry Seinfeld, Dave Chappelle, and Jim Gaffigan are experts at using pauses to set up, deliver, or extend a joke. 

In other words, timing is everything. It may seem heir apparent that a well-placed pause is powerful. But imagine building the skill. The first time you wait in front of an audience and then wait some more, trying to find that perfect balance between tension and resolution. It is uncomfortable to sit sometimes in awkward silence. 

The payoff is worth it, though. In comedy, you get a laugh. In business, you get an answer that your client wouldn’t offer otherwise. You have to be willing to sit in silence. And wait. And wait some more. Our instinct is to save the listener – to soften the question or volunteer potential answers. Don’t. 

Even if it is uncomfortable, here are some times a pause is powerful:

  • When asking about a budget: If you ask and pause, it is more likely the other side will produce an answer. Let the other side be the ones who fill the space.
  • Asking a stupid question: Is there something you think you already know the answer to? Ask about it anyway, and then wait. Often the answers to these “stupid” questions bring new information and clarity. 
  • Setting a price: If the other side is taken back by the number you just threw out there, let them linger on it. This isn’t about some archaic idea of the weaker party breaking the silence, but it is a chance to let the other side formulate their response. Often this means they are working to help you. 
  • Creative input: If you need your team to contribute, ask the question and wait. Optionally you can give an example, but you gain insights into your team by seeing who breaks the ice first. Subsequent ideas will be purer if the open-ended question isn’t constrained.

Study the use of pauses to enhance your communication (and your comedy).

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