I spend a lot of time telling my clients not to be afraid of silence, how a pause reinforces your point and gives the audience time to take in what you’ve said. This is true. Silence is a powerful tool in public speaking – but you have got to be in control of it.
Some years ago, I took an evening course in freelance journalism and I often think about the lesson in interview techniques. Silence is a powerful tool in journalism too. At what the person intended to be the end of an answer, if you, the journalist, remain silent, the discomfort of that silence can all too easily prod the hapless interviewee into blurting out all sorts of indiscretions.
And this is one to one. Imagine how much more pressure there is when you’re faced with a whole crowd of people waiting for you to speak. The urge to say something – anything – to fill the space becomes unbearable. Say something clever, something witty, something apt, now! I don’t need to tell you how dangerous this can be.
Even if you’re going to be saying only a few words – to introduce a speaker, to give the vote of thanks, to propose a toast – it’s essential you plan in advance exactly what you’re going to say. Sometimes – for example, if you’re thanking someone – you may not have much time to plan, but even a few seconds’ thinking can make the difference between saying and not saying something you regret.