The Power of Silence

We have all been there when, sitting in the audience confounded as a speaker is blasting us with information or speaking a mile a minute because they are nervous. The result of a presentation like this, is that everyone gets lost and loses interested. When speaking in public the most successful speakers use all the tools at their disposal to captivate an audience and convey information. And one of the most powerful of these tools is actually not what is said, but the unspoken silence that allows information to sink in or pose a question. In this post we will look at some of the ways that you can integrate silence into your presentation for dramatic effect as well as allowing the audience some time to absorb the information you are presenting to them

How Silence Affects Your Presentation

When we are speaking we convey information such as the presence of a person or the details of an idea. In normal everyday conversation we use pauses and silence to create distance in our speech. When speaking, silence constructs a gap between the speaker and the audience. This gap can be a powerful tool if used in the right way. However, if we get nervous or are under-prepared we subconsciously forgo using silence and instead try to fill gaps or pauses with words. This can overload an audience with information, and audience engagement dissipates. We would never speak this if we are relaxed, but under pressure we can’t help speaking quickly or without pauses. On the other extreme, some may freeze up when nervous, allowing far too much silence creating an atmosphere of awkwardness and confusion. This can lead to the audience interpreting the silence as trying to hide something or a lack of knowledge of the subject.1

The Virgin Mary telling a young John the Baptist to be quiet Wellcome V0015058

To understand how to use silence in a presentation effectively, you will first need to understand how we use silence in a natural way and what it conveys. Think of the last time you were having a conversation with a friend. In natural conversation there are regular pauses that let the other party absorb ideas and respond. In conversation, and these pauses are one of the most important features of social interaction.3  There are no spoken rules about when you should be silent, rather we just get the feeling that it is time to allow the other person a chance to say something. That feeling stems from us picking up on subtle natural cues that the other person is giving us. Silences of about 1 to 2 seconds are relatively normal in most everyday conversations.2  To emphasize a point or to ask a question silent pauses can last 3-5 seconds giving a dramatic effect. Silence might feel like an eternity when you are on stage, but if done right you will captivate and engage the audience.

“It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” – Mark Twain

How and when to use silence in your presentation

Long breaks in speaking can be divided into two types of silence, unintentional and intentional.1 Unintentional can be considered as someone who is shy or might feel embarrassed, while intentional silence has a distinct purpose.1  Intentional silence may be caused by the need or desire to withhold information from what is being discussed or questioned. For example, think about how you do not want to reveal too much information before delivering the punch line of a joke. Additionally, when negotiating, one party may want to be careful with the amount of information conveyed. Silence should be used strategically, and not because you have run out of things to say. However, in some cases too long a period of silence could be interpreted as a break down of communication. Depending on your audience, some groups may expect certain periods of silence in your speech that may be longer than you are comfortable with.2  So take the time to think about the context of your next presentation to help you decide how much silence to include.

It is useful to consider silence as a tool to convey information, emotion, and intrigue. Despite what our subjective gut reaction may be to silence. It turns out that, we are preconditioned based on gender, age, or race to speak with a certain amount of silence. Our normal pace of speaking, therefore, should be adjusted to fit a topic, audience and best convey information. These factors need to be considered while you are preparing before you get on stage. In a conversation there are several ways to know when a silent pause is appropriate, such as subtle distinct cues when to speak. However unlike a face to face interaction, on stage you do not have the benefit of these cues, and need to rely on your practiced rhythm to guide the presentation. In general most conversations will have fewer long pauses (e.g. greater than 2 seconds) than short pauses (e.g. less than 2 seconds).3  As you craft your next talk consider the number of times you want silence and how that might affect the audience’s perception of you. The goal is to balance the amount of silence so there is not too much or too little, and only you will be able to make the judgement call based on the topic, audience, and venue.

After George Caleb Bingham - Stump Speaking (engraving, 1886)

Simple tips to improve your voice when speaking

Probably the most common advice to improve your speaking voice is practice, however before you get to the stage here are some tips to help with your next talk. Make sure to take it slow. You may need to remind yourself during the presentation. For example if you are going to have notes on stage with you, write in the margins to remind yourself, “slow down”. Allow for short pauses as the next slide or idea is presented, and let your natural pace come through.

If you have bad jitters and get nervous when you get up to speak, find some friends to help with your next talk. Get in front of a small group that you are comfortable with, so you can condition your brain to be more relaxed when you speak to a bigger audience. Even if you do not have a talk coming up you can always do some basic Wikipedia research on a topic and give a practice talk on a random subject. Public speaking is a work in progress and it may take many tries to find your pace. Make sure to focus on keeping yourself calm and collected as you can, by consciously relaxing your breathing and posture.

If you are just getting your feet wet speaking in public, it is not uncommon for a new or inexperienced speaker to struggle with when to add silence or how long to pause. Many inexperienced speakers begin their presentation speaking at an unrelenting pace. Yet, no matter what your experience level, practicing a natural speaking rhythm with a balance of silent pauses will go a long way to help the quality of your next presentation.


1. Kurzon, D. (1995). The right of silence: A socio-pragmatic model of interpretation. Journal of pragmatics, 23(1), 55-69.

2. Mushin, I., & Gardner, R. (2009). Silence is talk: Conversational silence in Australian Aboriginal talk-in-interaction. Journal of Pragmatics, 41(10), 2033-2052.

3. Wilson, T. P., & Zimmerman, D. H. (1986). The structure of silence between turns in two‐party conversation. Discourse Processes, 9(4), 375-390.

4. Zimmermann, D. H., & West, C. (1996). Sex roles, interruptions and silences in conversation. Amsterdam Studies in the Theory and History of Linguistic Science Series 4, 211-236.

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