Let your silence speak for you

A question followed by a pause is one of the surest ways of provoking the audience to respond
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First Published: Mon, Nov 19 2012. 06 00 PM IST
A file photo of US President Barack Obama delivering his victory speech after being re-elected for a second term in Chicago, Illinois. Photo: AFP
A file photo of US President Barack Obama delivering his victory speech after being re-elected for a second term in Chicago, Illinois. Photo: AFP
I found recently that there is a name for the fear of public speaking: glossophobia. Nervousness at having to deliver a speech is common, and is found even in great speakers. It is said that Winston Churchill tried to gain confidence by writing out and memorizing his speeches, but gave up, and turned to impromptu presentations.
When you are required to make a speech in public, you first think of preparing the text of the speech, with questions such as gathering material, library work, how to memorize and rehearse the speech, whether and how to use notes.
Getting your script ready and memorizing your speech can be only one half of the project. The actual delivery is a different cup of tea.
It is here that some of the non-linguistic features, or “paralinguistic” features, of your presentation come into play. They include your voice, tone, pitch and pace. Barack Obama’s victory speech in Chicago has examples of the use of paralinguistic features. Look at this sentence:
“What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth, the belief that our destiny is shared, that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations, so that the freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights, and among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism.”
That is 72 words. Obama delivered it at a high pitch at one go, without pausing for breath. Then he paused and followed with a sentence of just six words. “That’s what makes America great.”
Such Ciceronian declamations are rare. There are two lessons here. A speaker should have command of pitch and pace, and be able to vary them for effect.
Speakers should not be afraid of silence. Many speakers imagine that if they miss the continuity of their text and if they have to pause, all is lost. Good speakers use pauses and silence as aids to presentation. After making an important statement, they deliberately go silent. That gives the listener a cue to think about what is being said and critically examine the idea.
Another trick is to give one half of a statement and then pause: the audience has to understand what is said and find the right words to complete the thought.
Mark Twain was an advocate of the use of pauses in speeches. He said, “No word was ever as effective as a rightly-timed pause.”
Speech trainers generally advise people to speak slowly and not be afraid of short intervals of silence. The pace of your speech should permit the listener to understand you clearly and share your thoughts on the subject. If this is difficult, the listener will switch off.
Placing a statement between pauses turns the reader’s attention to it. Another pattern of pausing is introducing a pause after each word of the sentence. “You cannot outlast us (pause), and we (pause) will (pause) defeat you.”
One feature of Obama’s speech is a succession of sentences beginning with the same word. In such examples, each sentence begins and ends with a pause. “For us they packed up... For us they toiled... For us they fought and died...” (inaugural speech, 2009). Thus the speaker carries the audience with him.
One of the ways to use a pause in your speech is to ask a question and then be silent.
The audience takes it up and tries to frame an answer. In Julius Caesar, Mark Antony has a question at the beginning of his speech at Caesar’s funeral. “Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?” He leaves it to the audience to answer. Later he has a punchline as a question: “Here was a Caesar. When comes such another?” A question followed by a pause is one of the surest ways of provoking the audience to respond.
V.R. Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
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First Published: Mon, Nov 19 2012. 06 00 PM IST
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