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Friday, February 18, 2011

Ever wondered why some people are better than others when speaking in public? It could be that they are saying nothing.

Whether it be a small meeting or at a larger more formal venue, speaking in front of others can be an ordeal. Steven Spielberg allegedly commented, that public speaking was in the top three phobias, after a fear of snakes and spiders. Drowning completed the trio.

There are plenty of business and management self-improvement books to buy at the airport departure lounge. Working on your voice is one of them. Accent, volume, diction, tone, intonation, resonance, pitch and variability are all in the toolbox. They come readily to mind as they involve activity. And yet, the most potent skill of all is ignored, because it involves doing nothing – we are talking of the “pause”.

In normal conversation, we speak at about 175 words a minute. A conversation is two people waiting impatiently to interrupt each other. The pause does not get a look in, and if used, can be disconcerting. Has something gone wrong?

Compare this with a presentation which is a one-sided interaction: the performer and the audience. Not getting any feedback from the second, it is easy for the presentation to become one-dimensional.

The pause introduces drama, variability and a sense of anticipation. It enables less to be said and the audience has time to reflect. The presenter has more time to think and be in control of events. Nerves can be handled. Pausing enables rhetorical devices such as rules of three to be optimised. Mastering the pause implies an awareness of timing which opens up the use of wit and anecdote.

Several years ago, I came across one of the BBC’s Natural History producers. We were discussing what made a good programme. Obviously, a stimulating script and visuals were must-haves. Almost as an aside, he noted that the use of pause and phrasing by the voice-over artist could make or break the final edit. Get the wrong narrator and everything is wasted.

There are some voices you just listen to. Think of Paul Vaughan and his voice-overs for the Horizon series and the early Orange adverts: "The future's bright...."

Blair, Obama, Bill Clinton and possibly Hague have it, but what about the rest of our current crop of public figures? Pausing and phrasing can illuminate the football results and a shipping forecast. Saying less, more slowly and with plenty of pauses can be the technique you need to get over that phobia. It worked for George V1!

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