Why you have more trouble with silence than with chatter


I give a lot of speeches, mostly telling people how to manage Generation Y, and how to manage their careers so that they are not jealous of Generation Y. My charm, I think, is that I don’t prepare a speech. I never know, exactly, what I’ll say when I stand up. It works for me—no one ever says I’m boring.

What they say instead is that I talk fast. When they are being nice, people say, “You’re so east coast” or “You sure have a lot of information.” When they are not being nice, people say, “Penelope lacks polish.”

The lack of polish thing sort of bugs me, so I get a lot of coaching.

The first time I got coaching as a speaker, it was from Lindy Amos, at TAI. She totally changed how I approached speaking. She taught me that it’s not about the information you spew so much as about the connections you make.

I love the crazy things I’ve had to do at TAI. Like, give a sermon as if I were a Southern preacher and give a speech about how much I did not have time to be interrupting my day to give a speech. I have taken the TAI introduction course twice, and really, I’d take it ten more times because I love it so much, but I'd feel like a cheater.

So I take private lessons from Lindy now. And last time I met with her, she told me to pause. I had to pause and ask her to repeat herself, because of course, I was talking so fast when she told me to pause that I could not pause fast enough to hear her.

“What?” I said.

“Pause,” she said.

“I am,” I said. “What did you say?”

And I said this in an annoyed voice, of course, because people who do not pause do not pause because they do not like to pause.

Lindy says that the impact of what I’m saying arrives during the pauses.

She tells me to start talking again, and pause where it feels natural to pause. I do that, thinking I won’t know where to pause, but I'm surprised that I can sort of tell.

Then I realize that I don't pause when I am speechmaking because I’m scared of what will happen in the pause. If I tell a joke with no pause, then people start to laugh, but they can’t really laugh because they are laughing on top of me talking, so they stop themselves laughing. That is not a great way to do a joke, but the alternative—that I pause at the end of a joke so that people have a moment to laugh—seems too risky. If they don’t laugh, I’ll feel so awkward.

The real risk of speaking is in the pause. And not just during joke time.

If I have a big idea, it sounds big when I pause. If it’s stupid, the pause gives someone a chance to really notice how stupid the idea is. But the excitement of hearing a big idea is nice, and people will have more miss it if I don’t pause.

During my own pause, I am horrified by the analogies—how, really, you don’t know how you’re doing with anything until you slow down to listen and notice.

I do a lot of swing dancing. With fast music, you can hide that you have no style. You just do technique to keep up with the music. The best moves come out when the music slows down and you can’t hide behind speed.

The same is true of sex. Right? Bad technique always comes with a fast pace.

And what about the pace of a career? I write all the time about how important it is to pause. A career with a slow, rhythmic, but not-always-constant pace is the best type of career to have. Because we learn about ourselves, and recalibrate our paths when we pause. That month you spend on the sofa, collecting an unemployment check and eating Cheetos between movies. That’s not wasted time. It’s your pause. You are thinking. And the pause is actually what keeps us on course.

What I love about Lindy is that she takes what I know is definitely true and shows me that I’m not living up to that. I am scared to have a pause. I know that’s where the action happens, and I know that the best speakers are the ones who take risks. You would think that I take risks all the time. I mean I go to employee motivation seminars and tell everyone to job hop. But the risk isn’t in one's content. The risk is in the pause, where I can tell how my audience is connecting with the content, or not.

It’s a hard lesson. But this lesson is just like all the times that Lindy has changed my speaking style: I connect better everywhere. Not just in my speeches.

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  1. Dave
    Dave says:

    Nice insight – very helpful. As interesting as it is to read the salacious bits about your personal life, days like this are what really keep me coming back.

    I too don’t prepare speeches. When I try, I’m too wooden, stiff. When I know the subject well, I can just think about the points I want to cover and then freeflow. It seems to work for me. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one.

  2. Smith+Fritzy
    Smith+Fritzy says:

    Being an ex-speech teacher, I followed the same rules I taught – outline, but don’t memorize. Being organized allows you to be equipped to both speak intelligently but also to be prepared to answer questions.

    But its true for most people – when we feel most comfortable with the information we’re giving, we tend to speak fast. It is like an unconscious assumption that the listeners know and feel what we’re saying.

  3. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:


    Interesting post, although I could imagine you type as breathlessly as I imagine you speak :-)

    I too speak at breakneck speed and agree with Smith+Fritzy about the relation between speed and comfort with the subject matter. But living in Europe made a lot of difference to my speed of speaking.

    Although most Europeans are multilingual, they are not so au fait with various accents that one can unleash volleys of words at them at the speed of light. Ergo, one learns to be slow, and deliberate. And that also often forces one to be precise in one’s expression. Mostly good, I think.

  4. janya
    janya says:

    interesting point about the pause being scary, whether in speeches or in dancing. A pause at high speed is terrifying.

  5. Casey @OYFP
    Casey @OYFP says:

    There’s nothing worse than someone who rambles during a speech, doesn’t stop for breath, and doesn’t seem to have a point. I myself have embodied that while giving short speeches at events put on by my non-profit. I’ve learned to avoid it by quickly jotting down the main points I want to make (usually who I need to thank for the event) prior to getting up on stage, and always making a self deprecating joke or admitting a mistake, which always gets people to laugh. I wouldn’t hear the laughter if I hadn’t learned to pause… and that laughter is a great feeling – well, as long as you meant to make them laugh..

  6. Jim
    Jim says:


    I met you in person at Techcocktail in Chicago. You were not a fast speaker. In fact you paused when you told me who you were. And you look different in person (better) than your yahoo picture. That pause you took gave me the time to connect the dots and confirm the association in my mind.

    When it comes to being unpolished, John Madden is unpolished and it works for him. I’d rather hear someone who is unpolished but knows what they are talking about than a polished person who doesn’t really say anything of importance.

  7. Mikeachim
    Mikeachim says:

    Another great post, Penelope. I’m getting a kind of mental RSI from thinking that sentence when I pop by here. :)

    I’ve also been blogging about pause and listening recently. Pause is listening, is *awareness*. Absolutely.

    Holidays/journeys/adventures are a great way to pause: they lift you out the everyday noise that you feel you *have* to interact with. They take away the temptation to floor your own gas pedal.

    Regarding speech: the spoken word is not so far removed from the written word, I reckon. The right words carry meaning more economically. A speech can be spare, but enormously charismatic and engaging. Pauses between dazzlingly succinct sentences echo round the brain for weeks. Much better approach than the biblical Flood/Tom Clancy style of content delivery, surely.

    I love watching Guy Kawasaki at work on this: his slides are almost empty. He yarns and jokes, but boiled down, his points are spare: he lets things bounce around.

  8. prklypr
    prklypr says:

    Sometimes when you are moving thru life at breakneck speed, you are afraid to pause because you’ll lose your momentum. Then something forces a pause – job loss, divorce, burned dinner, whatever – and you look back and realize you really needed it. Like a mental vacation.

    * * * * * * *
    This is a lovely comment. Thank you. Like, maybe it’s what I meant to write but didn’t quite get there at the end.


  9. Dan Owen
    Dan Owen says:

    This is a great post. It’s important to understand that pausing when you talk is closely linked to listening to the person you’re talking to, an even more important skill than pausing, but it’s unwise to separate the two. Since most people don’t talk in public, though, they should practice this skill while doing something that everyone does all the time: arguing with someone they care about. If you pause during the delivery of your attack, it gives them and you and chance to hear what you’re saying and make wise adjustments.

    Your analogies are wrong:

    Re: swing dance. I do a lot of it too. You can NEVER hide bad form. Even if the audience doesn’t notice, your partner notices EVERYTHING. And it’s only the inexperienced onlooker who doesn’t notice: they’re the only ones you fool by going fast to hide your poor technique — it just makes you look, well, unpolished, and in swing dance, polish is everything. A practiced eye sees EVERYTHING. And, P, the same is true in business.

    Re: sex. You’re an idiot. You think an analogy like this will illuminate your subject, but it doesn’t, it just makes you look like you’re bad in bed.

    * * * * * * *
    I like that you added a bit about swing dancing. Thanks. And, about being bad in bed. Maybe. We can’t all be great at everything.


  10. Holly Hoffman
    Holly Hoffman says:

    In my 12-step meetings, the real emotion from the person who is speaking comes in the pauses. It’s not pausing for effect, but pausing to gather in the emotion that wants to rush out. And, yes, it gives everyone listening time to reflect on not just what the person is saying, but what they are feeling, what they are conveying. It can be very powerful.

    I also get a sense when someone pauses while they are talking that they are taking the time to process something, and that makes it feel special – like that thought was created right then and there.

    It’s funny… we always think about the talking, but not the space between. Thanks.

  11. Tiffany Monhollon
    Tiffany Monhollon says:

    Pause is powerful because it is about reality. I think that’s why it’s so raw. So difficult.

    It is so easy to fill our time and speech and mind and home and career with stuff. Sometimes, without even thinking. Stuff, stuff, stuff.

    Because stuff is pretty easy to come up with.

    It’s much harder to be purposeful. Deliberate. To edit, to listen, to pause.

    But something you left out is that pause is also important because it is not stop.

  12. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I was surprised to read that you tell a joke during your speech. A joke has the potential to offend one or more members of your audience. A good way to connect and give the audience a good laugh is to tell them a funny story either about yourself or someone else to illustrate a point. It’s a piece of advice I heard on a local radio station from a professional speaking coach.

  13. melanie gao
    melanie gao says:

    Just imagine what Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech would have been like without the pauses. He wasn’t afraid to release control of the speech for a few moments and let the audience’s own emotions swell.

  14. Deanna McNeil
    Deanna McNeil says:

    When you are speaking, aren’t the pauses really so that you can look at your audience, really see who you are addressing? It isn’t just a perfunctory action. Really connecting with your audience, whether it is your four year old or your boss, is about more than what we say. It is in paying attention & really accepting the feedback we are receiving. I appreciated how you connected the pause across so many aspects of life.

    * * * * * *

    Hm. Interesting question. People who speak a lot usually do it without notes, or with only a few words as notes. So they are looking up all the time. And that’s really important, because it’s much harder to tell how you’re doing if you don’t look at the people you’re talking to.


  15. Michael
    Michael says:

    You are right on, Penelope. As a pastor, which makes me a regular speech maker/giver, I have had to learn to be comfortable not only pausing, but allowing there to be silence, even when I lose my place or train of thought. That is scary, all those eyes looking at you, thinking ‘what an idiot’, yet, they are just catching up to the previous comments.

    Another great trait is to know when to repeat a sentence, and then pause, allowing it to sink in. Anything worth repeating needs a pause immediately after it.

  16. JB
    JB says:

    Thanks for the last bit about how important it is to take a breather during your career.

    I am on a self-imposed pause right now and I’m trying to figure out what’s next. It’s scary as hell. I’m a type-A person who has always shot for the next rung on the ladder, so stopping the climb is petrifying. But in those momemts that I have confidence in myself, I’m sure that this pause is ultimately what will keep me on course. The problem is keeping up the confidence, right? And that’s why so many of us never do pause.

  17. Emily
    Emily says:

    I think things are starting to become this way with electronic communications, too. We are so used to being bombarded with messages all the time, if everything goes silent for a few minutes and we’re not getting any IMs, Gchats, tweets, or e-mails, it feels like something is wrong and we worry that maybe we’re not important. I’m glad you are recognizing the beauty of a pause, in whatever sense.

  18. david rees
    david rees says:

    As a recruiter that talks to people all day for a living, I have to say that my favorite tool is the pause and the extended pause.

    For too many reasons to list, but most people cannot stand an extended pause. The people that can are very interesting…

    * * * * *

    This is excellent advice. I could write a whole post on how much — power, information, whatever –you get from the world if you can stand to wait out a long pause. Also, my life is so much more interesting since I have learned to wait out a long pause, because people always surprise me by what they come up with if they can’t stand the pause.


  19. KateNonymous
    KateNonymous says:

    Pausing is the speech version of listening. Without it, you’re just blathering–regardless of content quality.

  20. Kimberly Togman
    Kimberly Togman says:

    I LOVED this post. As a fast talking East Coaster I have been told all of my life to slow down. My response is always, talking slow for me is like riding my bike downhill with the brakes on…it takes energy and creates friction. Nevertheless, I try.

    For me, the most powerful lessons came on the impact of slowing down during my coaching certification program with the absolutely fabulous Hudson Institute of Santa Barbara. Those West Coasters railed on me for my pace. The beginning of the program for me was all about slowing down–boy did I resent it at first. And then I realized, in the pauses people think. And grasp things. And learn. And feel. And grow.

    Thanks for this post. I may just have to find out if your trainer runs programs in Philadelphia…

  21. prklypr
    prklypr says:

    @Deanna McNeil – pauses can be used to look up and connect with your audience, but if they are taken at an inopportune moment, they seem more awkward than connecting. The skill is not in knowing that you need to pause, but knowing when is the perfect moment to pause. See Melanie’s ref to MLK Jr’s “I have a dream” speech – perfect example.

  22. Deanna McNeil
    Deanna McNeil says:

    @prklypr Thanks for that response. It is time to listen to that speech again and take it in again with these thoughts in mind. Thanks Penelope for makind us think about how we really connect with our audience.

  23. Tom
    Tom says:

    There is a saying in Spanish, “Las palabras son plata, el silencio oro.” (Words are silver, silence is gold.) The pause is when the value of the words register with the audience. A good speaker can adapt to the audience’s reaction during pauses, and often the speach we give is not exactly the one we intended, but the one the audience required.

  24. Maureen
    Maureen says:

    What is this life if, full of care,
    We have no time to stand and stare.

    No time to stand beneath the boughs
    And stare as long as sheep or cows.

    No time to see, when woods we pass,
    Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

    No time to see, in broad daylight,
    Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

    No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
    And watch her feet, how they can dance.

    No time to wait till her mouth can
    Enrich that smile her eyes began.

    A poor life this if, full of care,
    We have no time to stand and stare.

    -Wm. Henry Davies

  25. david rees
    david rees says:

    Thanks for the reply Penelope.

    My mom was just visiting my brother and I here in Austin. She had a lot of old pictures and was talking about us as kids.

    She told me that even as a little kid, I was always testing people. Trying to see what they were about, how motivated their were to keep me out of the cookie jar, etc.

    I realized thats why I like the pause so much as a conversational tool: it reveals so much about the person you are talking to. I have been very amused at the few times I have encountered people like myself – not afraid to “power pause” and I think I have experienced silence approaching a solid minute. (after that, it is just so obviously a contest).

  26. John
    John says:

    Great post. You always have good stuff but this is one of those that rang very true for me. I gave a presentation last friday to some very senior staff within my company as part of an interview process.
    I did well with the questions they asked but I didn’t pause enough. Luckily they were aggressive questions askers and so they made my lack of presenting skills a little easier.
    Any shot you want to do a post on the pain and suffering caused by bad powerpoint presentations? Mine was four slides for an hour and most slides had fewer than twenty words.

  27. deepali
    deepali says:

    The irony is that I read this post without taking a pause. (Then I went back and re-read it)

    Some of us talk non stop because we think out loud. Perhaps a pause will make me sound less like I’m babbling. :)

  28. Laurie
    Laurie says:

    I work with a guy who pauses when he speaks. Loooonnnnggg pauses. It used to make me uncomfortable because the silence was deafening and I had to train myself not to fill them in with my own blathering. When I was able to do that I realized that the pauses were always followed by thoughtful and insightful comments or suggestions. Now I look forward to his pauses because I know something really good is about to be said.

  29. Quasar9
    Quasar9 says:

    Alas Penelope
    the irony is that talking (in conversation), people can sometimes misinterpret our words.
    Not talking of course leaves it totally open to interpretation. Does he/she agree or not? – lol

  30. Jonathan Fields
    Jonathan Fields says:

    Hey P,

    Since your so physically oriented, here’s the analogy…hypertrophy. The process of building strength.

    During the work phase you exercise, you plant the seeds for strength to grow. But that process is really about delivering massive amounts of work, stimulus, tearing down. It’s not where the strength part happens.

    You get stronger during the recovery phase, when your body “pauses,” processes and integrates all the work, the information, the stimuli. If you never give it time for this to happen, you end up with a big, fat, confused, sore, weak mess. If you allow time for it to happen, you end up with magic.

  31. Jessica Bond
    Jessica Bond says:

    Great reminder to all of us… fast-talking extroverts…pauses are very effective but sometimes take great discipline.

    Silence is good too depending on the circumstances.

    Pauses and silence allows us to listen which is what most people desire most…to be heard.

  32. Laurie/Halo Secretarial
    Laurie/Halo Secretarial says:

    I definitely need to pause more – I’m a fast talker and reading your post I realize there is more to it than an enjoyment of speech! I don’t always want to hear from my listener so I just keep on talking. I need to listen more. Thanks!

  33. Nathan Snell
    Nathan Snell says:

    While i’m not a recruiter, I’d have to agree with David on the benefit of the pause and extended pause in everyday interaction. Works great when you’re on a date with someone and you ask a question that isn’t your normal question. The longer you wait to remark on their response, the more you learn about the individual.

    I have the same issue when it comes to public speaking. I talk really fast and tend not to pause. It’s been better since I started using a waterbottle as a prop to slow me down.

  34. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    Remembered another point.

    Sometimes pauses are very important, not when one is speaking but when one is listening.

    While conducting my research interviews with bigwigs in my field, digital voice recorder sitting on the table, I would ask a question and stay quiet, even as it appeared that they had finished giving their answer. As I stayed quiet, I found how uncomfortable silence makes people, when they are sitting with a relative stranger. So guess what? They would talk more, a lot more after a long period of quiet, a pause from me.

    The result? I have several interviews that went on for 2 sometimes 3 hours. Transcribing them was, of course, a different story. :-)

  35. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    My two most favorite coaches and teachers in the last year gave me this wonderful statement:

    “Communication is what the listener does.”

    Think of your style in communicating relevant to that statement and your world view just might shift….

  36. Bud Bilanich
    Bud Bilanich says:

    Great post as usual, Penelope.

    I was giving a talk to a bunch of summer interns at a big pharmaceutical company today. I was discussing the exact same thing. Pausing can really help your communication — in conversations and in presentations.

    However, I take it one step further. I encourage people to pause in their writing. I suggest that they write paragraphs of two or three sentences.

    This may not be what you learned in school, but it works. A paragraph break in a written document is like a pause in a conversation.

    Try it. It works!

    Bud Bilanich
    The Common Sense Guy

  37. Michael Lee Stallard
    Michael Lee Stallard says:

    I went to TAI for workshops and private consultations after I wrote a book and began speaking at companies and conferences. Twyla Thompson helped me slow down and connect with people. What a difference it made. In addition to Twyla, Gifford Booth at TAI helped me find a comfortable volume that keeps audiences engaged. They are terrific advisors and a lot of fun too. I’ve always thought the workshops would make excellent team building events. When workshop participants take risks and become vulnerable, the other participants naturally empathize and root for them. It draws them together as a group.

  38. Kathleen
    Kathleen says:

    Did you know that research shows that the human brain cannot both listen and comprehend at the same time? So, as a speaker, if you don’t build in pauses to your delivery, the words you’re saying turn into nothing but blah blah blah to the “listener”. The pauses are an essential resting place for the listener to both absorb what you’ve just said, and to take a new breath for what you’re about to say next. I don’t do them well, but pauses are good. Great post!

  39. Dale
    Dale says:

    At first I was going to complain that since everything, from word choice to pace of delivery, are tools in a professional speaker’s workbox – as it is today – it is little wonder that people cannot decipher what is authentic and sincere, versus what is an act to promote a deceptive, weak or inaccurate argument.
    But now I realize that knowledge is power, and knowing the tricks of the public speaking trade is infinitely preferable to being fooled by the peripheral cues given by speakers over their sometimes weak messages.
    Perhaps you could write another blog, or series of them, to highlight more ideas/tools that work. This one was very interesting.

  40. Susan
    Susan says:

    Are you ever going to update your blog? I discovered you on Aug 6th, and you haven’t updated your blog in two weeks. Bummer.

  41. G-man
    G-man says:

    “The same is true of sex. Right? Bad technique always comes with a fast pace.”
    Do I sense a thinly veiled dig at a soon to be ex?

  42. Sital
    Sital says:

    Thanks Penelope – Execellent post

    I’m a big fan of the ‘career pause’ – my best ideas and insights have come whilst lounging around between projects.

    But pausing whilst speaking is something I definitely need to work on.

    So thanks for the post and the timely reminder!

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