It’s been a while since my last post here. But in the back of my mind (and on a list in OneNote), I have accumulated ideas for this site, and there’s still tons to write on presentation skills for scientists. So let’s get started.

If your wondering, why it’s been so long, here’s my excuses, I promise I haven’t been lazy: I have spent my blogging time on posts for a blog run by the Career Service at the Karolinska Institute. Via that blog, I went to Euroscience Open Forum 2018 to write on sessions ranging from career prospects of young scientists to reproducibility problems. I have also been writing speeches and organizing a workshop on presentation skills. All in my spare time of course. Sometimes, I just have to prioritize and do one thing at a time.

Now, let’s talk about silence. Today’s topic is pausing. All the professional speakers use them, but the rest of us are usually not that great at pausing when we present. Pausing takes practice and courage, but if you master them, I promise they will take your presentation to a whole new level.

If you, like me, tend to speak fast, then pauses are essential for you. In general, I don’t think that speaking fast is a big problem, as long as you’re generous with your pauses between sentences and points. If you say a sentence fast, then you need to pause after it to let the listener take it in. If instead, the fast-spoken sentence is followed by another, and another, and another, without any pauses, then the listener will struggle to keep up, and may stop listening all together. So lately, I have been practicing my pauses.  

Personally, I think it’s both easier and more powerful to learn to pause, than to completely change the natural pace of your speaking. So if you’re like me, and you’ve been told that you speak too fast, it’s probably time to start working on those pauses. And if your speaking pace is already perfect, and you want to take your speaking to the next level, it’s still time to work on those pauses.

Why are pauses so powerful?

A pause can serve many purposes. Here’s a list of some of the things a pause can do:

  1. Give the audience time to digest the content
  2. Grab attention
  3. Build expectation
  4. Make your jokes funny

In a scientific presentation, I think the most important ones are 1 and 2. And as you advance as a speaker, you can start using pauses for 3 and 4 as well.

Let’s go through each in a bit more detail:

Give the audience time to digest the content

When you are presenting your science, the technical level is usually high, which means that your audience needs to be focused to digest all the information you’re giving them. You’re putting your audiences’ minds to hard work. Especially, as they have no control over the speed in which they receive the information. There’s no pause button.

I have often experienced that the speed of information is just too high and relentless. It simply becomes too difficult to follow. But you can do a lot to make it easier, and the pause is a powerful tool here.

Whenever you give new technical information in your presentation, pause afterwards, let it sink in. Before you change your slide, pause for a few seconds, be quiet, let the audience get another look. Then when you move on, your audience is ready to move on with you.

To get this right, practice and preparation is essential. It’s easy to form the intention of pausing in your next presentation, but if you haven’t practiced the pauses in advance, there’s little chance that you will remember them in the midst of the adrenaline rush.   

Learning to pause during presentations takes time and practice, so start by inserting a few pauses and then build gradually. For your next presentation, I encourage you to identify 3-4 places, where you are adding complexity to your talk. Then insert a 1-2 second pause after you added this extra layer of complexity and practice each pause several times. When practicing, pretend you have an audience before you, and look out at the audience while pausing, so you build and keep a connection with them.

As pausing becomes easier, you can insert more pauses of varying length. For example, short pauses of just half a second after most sentences, longer pauses 1-2s after technical information and before slide changes. I ensure you, the right use of pauses can raise the quality of a presentation dramatically.

Grab attention

In any talk, getting and keeping the audiences attention is a challenge. I believe, this challenge is even bigger in scientific talks as they require a lot of the audience. Here, the pause yet again comes in handy. Pauses are excellent at grabbing attention.

You can use a pause from the very start. Before starting your presentation, be quiet for a moment and just look at your audience.

You can do the same at each transition in your talk. Pause for a moment, look at the audience, establish eye contact, and move on. In this way, pauses not only grab attention, they also serve to maintain that precious contact with your audience.

Build expectation

In your scientific presentations, you will probably be showing results that you or your team obtained. Why not build up some expectation before revealing what you found?

When you present your results, don’t plaster a graph or image up there right away. Start with a bit of background and explanation of why you did this experiment and what you expected to find (possibly while showing a black slide). Then say something like “and here’s what we found”, then you pause and build expectation, the audience are now eager to hear what you found.

Now, you don’t have to insert a long dramatic pause as they do in TV-shows. Just 1-2 seconds will do the trick.

Make your jokes funny

Most scientific presentations aren’t funny and they don’t need to be. But I have seen a few of them where the speaker used humour and got great responses from the audience. I bit of well placed humour that’s targeted to your audience can work well to create energy in the room.

If you’re one of the brave who uses humour in your talks, pauses are essential for you. Without pauses, your jokes will probably fall flat. If you are using punchlines, pause for a moment before the punchline and again afterwards. If the audience laughs, pause until they are finished laughing. Never talk over a laughing audience.

Good stand-up comedians excel at using pauses. Try watching a bid of stand-up and study the pauses. Then imagine how it would sound if the comedian didn’t pause. Is it still funny?

Let’s wrap this up. I hope, I have convinced you to start working on those pauses. Start with a few practiced pauses, and add a few more for each presentation. Be aware of what you want to achieve with each pause. Are you giving time to digest, grabbing attention, building expectation, being funny, or a little of each?

If you try this out and want to share the results, you can find me on twitter as SciNinaJensen.

The header image is from Pixabay.com and I made the comics on Canva.com – it was my first try, I promise they will get better!

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