The Well-Timed Pause

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Let us pause to consider the humble pause. Or should I say the great and dreaded pause?

Even more, perhaps, than the use of the words themselves, it's the pauses between them that separate the real pros from the amateurs.

Let's face it. It isn't easy to pause. It takes real self-confidence and a certain sang-froid to do it right. You have to be the kind of person who isn't afraid of losing the audience or giving a heckler the chance to hurl the verbal' tomato. I think of Shelley's Ozymandias, who had "the frown, and the wrinkled lip, and the sneer of cold command." I can't imagine a guy like that rushing through a speech. Stopping after an important point, he would allow time for the weight of his words to sink in.

I think,' too, of Father Timothy, my high school headmaster, who had a Withering stare that would freeze a roomful of noisy boys, and a dazzling; smile that complemented (and often. complimented) a rapier- wit. This man - a legend to generations of school children - was and is an exceptionally gifted public speaker. He is also a master of pauses, whether baleful, jestful or thoughtful.

A good baseball pitcher learns how to mix his pitches effectively. It is the same with public speaking. You use the ‘off-speed' stuff - including pauses and changes in pacing and inflection - to set up' the high hard one.

Actors do a long pause in the middle of the first line of Hamlet's soliloquy. That is the famous pregnant pause. They add a short significant pause at the end of the line, before picking up speed in the next lines. Try it yourself. Here is the passage (scanned by a professional actor):

To be or not to be? (long pause)

That is the question. (short pause)

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or to take arms a-gainst a sea of troubles

And by opposing (pause) end them.

Note the ending. Instead of the normal "de dum, de dum" rhythm of Shakespeare's verse, with alternating light and strong stresses, the passage ends with a powerful "thump' thump," set up by a sudden and unexpected pause. That is the meaningful pause. It acts as a silent drumroll, heralding a dramatic statement.

In setting up the punch line, the comic pause has the opposite effect - making us think (wrongly) there's nothing more to be said. Here's an example from The Simpsons:

Homer: "Marge, don't discourage the boy! Weaseling out of things is important to learn. It's what separates us from the animals. (pause) Except the weasel."

When a joke misfires, comics will often do a double-take, pausing in mock surprise. With Jay Leno, this becomes the dropped-jaw pause. In a good-natured and self-effacing way, practiced speakers with good-sized chins of their own will sometimes use this pause to good effect in responding to criticism from the floor.

Speech coaches tell us never to launch straight into a speech. Upon arriving at the podium, we should pause and establish eye contact with members of the audience. Hitler (and I do not propose him as a role model for anyone) went to an incredible extreme. He would stand in a trance; for several minutes while the crowd joined him in silent communion. Thereafter they hung on every word.

No account of the pause would be complete without the awkward or panicky pause. The massive Luca Brasi in The Godfather does an unforgettable turn as a speaker with a bad case of stage fright:

"Don Coreleone, I am honored and grateful that you have invited me to your daughter's wedding. (pause) on the wedding day of your daughter's wedding. (pause) And I hope that their first child is a masculine child."

You don't want to overdo the pause. Nothing is more annoying than the speaker who pauses portentously after a commonplace observation. On the other hand, no audience will warm to a speech that is delivered in a monotone. As always, you learn by doing and by inviting others to critique your efforts as you move outside your comfort zone in acting out the words -- varying the tempo ...and even daring to miss a beat. It is also a good idea (if a painful experience) to observe yourself on videotape.

Here's some further advice from the Bard himself: "Let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word and the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature."

By Andrew_Wiles

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