Amp Up Your Presence and Presentations With The Sound of Silence

Eleni Kelakos presentation skills training

I always knew when my high school Algebra teacher, Mr. Sobel, was going to tell one of his signature jokes: He paused.

Eyes twinkling, with a little smile curling his lips, he’d stand in a pregnant silence. And we all leaned forward, every one of us kids, in delicious expectation (he was a darn good joke teller). That moment of silence was rich with anticipation, and always worth the wait.

Mr. Sobel was a master of the Pause. So is any speaker worth their salt who wants to capture their audience’s attention and help them know that what they’re about to say—or have just said—is important.

The problem being silent while other people are watching is that it’s not exactly easy. In fact, it can be downright excruciating, because it gives time and space for our little inner judgers, Moe and Schmoe, to yak their negative Lies That Bind into our heads (“You’re going to mess up in front of everyone!” ” “Everyone will realize you’re not as smart as they thought you were!”).Standing in silence with eyeballs fixed on us often kicks us into the Murky Middle of Discomfort, that awkward, vulnerable place we must go if we want to learn and grow.

I see this happen during an excersise I conduct during presentation skills trainining in which I ask people to pair up, face each other, and stand in silence one whole minute. for sixty seconds.

“Connect with your eyes and your heart,” I instruct, “stay relaxed and breathing. Get curious about this human standing in front of you. Look into your partners eyes and really see them.” Depending on the participants’ comfort level with being present and vulnerable with others (especially people they may not know well), those sixty seconds can feel like sixty minutes. I watch and listen as little snorts of suppressed laughter escape pursed lips, the urge to fill silence with words is fought, and arms and hands shift into defensive positions (like crossed arms or hands in pockets). It happens every single time.

At the end of the exercise, there’s always an audible sigh of relief, and a burst of nervous chattering in direct proportion the time spent in awkward silence. “That was hard!” they confess.

It takes courage to be silent, when every part of you is screaming to, well, scream… or at least fill the silence with chatter. Because that’s what we do when we get anxious and nervous: We chatter away, hoping that by filling the quiet with words we might feel less uncomfortable. And by doing so, we lose an opportunity to connect more deeply with both ourselves and others, which diminishes our Charismatic Presence as speakers and leaders.

Learning how make peace with silence, and incorporate it effectively into your talks, can create greater engagement with your audience.

Here are three suggestions on how to experiment with the Sound of Silence in your presentations:

1.Begin in Silence. Stand in silence for few moments before you open your mouth to start your talk. As I like to say, connect first, speak second. Your great teachers did this, their very deliberate silence slowly gathering together the unruly energy in the room. Try starting your talk by standing quietly in front of your audience, slowly scanning them with your eyes, feeling your feet comfortably grounded on the floor. Stay as physically relaxed as possible, arms by your sides, as you slowly inhale and exhale. Count slowly to five before you speak. If it helps, instead of counting, repeat a phrase like this in your head: “I’m so excited to be speaking with you today. I’ve worked hard on preparing this presentation for you, and I hope you find it useful.” Then find someone with your eyes, and begin to speak.

2. Pause After a Point: Way too often, speakers make an important point and immediately gallop off towards the their next point, greatly reducing the impact of what they just said. Give your audience a moment to take in and consider what you’ve just said by pausing briefly after you’ve made your point. (And remember not to physically move as you’re making that important point, since movement can diminish it).

3. Pause Before A Point. This is similar to a comic adding a little air, a little verbal space, before they hit the punch line. A little Pre-Point Pause acts like a golf tee, holding up the golf ball that is your next verbal utterance and giving it just a teeny bit more loft/reach and impact.

4. Add More Pauses. If you’re a fast-talker (which can get worse when you’re nervous and surfing an adrenaline rush), rather than focusing on trying to slow down, focus on inserting more pauses. Think of it as white space, giving people time and breathing room to hear and understand what you are saying. As an added bonus, adding more pauses (at the right places) can give your talk more drama and variety, which further engages your audience.

The more willing you are to try any one of these four suggestions, the more comfortable you will get with standing in silence while others are watching. And the better chance you will have sharing your message effectively with your audience of one or one-thousand.