To Better Connect, Master the ... Pause
Fifty years ago, the New York Knicks won the NBA Championship over the Los Angeles Lakers. The game was played at Madison Square before a sold-out crowd and broadcast over the ABC television network. Under television rules in 1970, the game was blacked out on TV in New York, so fans listened to the radio call of an emerging star: 28-year-old play-by-play man Marv Albert, whose signature “Yes!” call would soon become known to basketball fans worldwide.
Albert is probably the most imitated sportscaster of all time, and the underrated key to his successful style is his brilliant use of the pause. Listen to some of his work on the hit ESPN miniseries The Last Dance. The emotion when he bellows “Yes!” is heightened by a little extra space between “a” and “spectacular” and serves to further emphasize the word “spectacular.” The use of a pause isn't simply a broadcasting trick — it’s a crucial communication skill that all leaders must master.
In my book, Don’t Take Yes for an Answer, I talk about the three key communication traits that lead to maximum influence: Authority, Warmth and Energy — or AWE. In my experience representing on-air talent and coaching executives, the pause is an incredibly valuable (and underutilized) tool. And when you don’t pause when speaking — whether in one-on-one conversations or in a presentation — it drags down your AWE.
Many people use filler words (“like,” “um”, “eh,” “you know” and “so”) instead of a pause. This bad habit leads to a myriad of negative repercussions. First, you seem less intelligent, less competent and less authoritative. Second, those filler words create a predictable and boring rhythm, which dulls your message and sucks the vital energy out of the room. Finally, that predictable rhythm often leads to a robotic delivery, leaving no room for the other person (or people) to connect on a deeper level with you or the message. You can't convey warmth without connection.
A pause is an opportunity for dialogue.
I once had a client who worked in sales and didn’t understand why he was losing customers. Listening to the phone recordings of him doing business told me everything I needed to know. I said to him, “You’re a hard worker. You’re smart, fast and very skilled. But you will continue to lose out on opportunities until you start better acknowledging the other person. It’s all output with you — talk, talk, talk. You’re talking at people versus creating a connection that draws them in. How can you know what someone wants if you don’t give them an opportunity to tell you?”
I handed him a stopwatch. “The next time you get on a sales call, start the watch. Give yourself only seven seconds max to speak, then pause.”
The properly used pause has immense power. It accomplishes several things:
• It keeps your audience off-balance — and therefore engaged in what you’re saying. A pause makes your delivery unpredictable and more compelling. You want your listener to eagerly anticipate what you’re going to say next — and by sprinkling in a pause, you don’t allow them to tune out.
• It gives you an opportunity to read the room and take note of how people are responding to you.
• It creates space for the other person to interject and add their thoughts. Even if the person you’re speaking with doesn’t say anything in response and simply nods or laughs, these nonverbal assertions still keep the conversation moving forward.
• It gives you a chance to shake up your pace. If you tend to speak quickly, a pause gives you and the listener a chance to reset, and also gives you a chance to take a deep breath and recapture a more authoritative pitch level in your voice — as opposed to droning on in an artificially high octave.
• It allows you to emphasize the words that are important to you so the person you’re talking to will better understand your message. In my book, I make the point that “inflection is infection.” When you inflect, you infect the listener with your enthusiasm and bring a level of emotional commitment to your language.
A pause doesn't mean dropping your point
Pausing doesn’t mean you won’t be able to finish your thought. A lot of people think that they’re supposed to speak to the period — to the very end of a sentence before pausing. But it’s often mid-pause that the other person will say something that’s tangential and additive to your point, which will further enhance the dialogue, reinforce your conversation and boost the feeling of warmth between you. Pausing is a little thing, but it makes a big impact.
By mastering the pause, you will increase your authority, exhibit a subtle level of confidence in your messaging, and create a better connection with people, whether you’re having a one-on-one chat, in a team meeting or delivering a presentation.
Remember the client I mentioned earlier, who was losing sales? He initially resisted my advice, but eventually he tried my stopwatch technique. A month later, he reported that he’d closed a record number of sales. In addition, he was feeling a positive shift in his personal relationships. I was thrilled but not surprised. He was now balancing his output with other people’s input. When you do that, you don’t just more effectively communicate your message, you communicate respect, which in turn generates respect from others. The pause invites the person or people you’re speaking with to reciprocate and engage you. When in doubt … pause.