The Group Pause
One of the greatest gifts an audience can give to a speaker can’t be found online or in a store. It doesn’t cost a penny, and anyone can offer it up at just about any time. It’s painfully simple, and yet it frequently needs to be earned. What’s this riddle about? It’s about the greatest gift an audience can give to a speaker – people asking questions.
- Questions can help us determine if our message is getting through.
- Questions can help us determine the attitude of the audience.
- Questions can help us sustain interest in our message.
The list of benefits goes on and on. Not every audience walks into a presentation dying to ask questions. It’s natural for audiences to be uncertain of the safety of asking questions, or unconvinced that the presenter genuinely wants to be asked questions. The easiest way to teach an audience that questions are welcome is to address each question in a courteous, manner, while sincerely expressing your appreciation. That will often do the trick… but what happens when no questions are asked? When presenters ask for questions from the audience, it is this moment when “The Power of the Pause” once again comes into play.
A lot is riding on this moment within a presentation, although asking an audience if there are any questions certainly seems simple enough. However, it’s what we do after we ask the question that gets us in trouble. You see, our malfunctioning internal clock is at it again.
If you think we’re uncomfortable with periods of silence in a normal conversation, that internal clock runs even faster when we are in front of an audience. We are so uncomfortable with silence that our internal clock runs about four times faster than a real clock. What feels like four seconds to you is actually about one second on a real clock. Here’s a scenario that may sound familiar:
Presenter: Are there any questions?
Audience: (Thinking) Well, let me see…
Presenter: Great! Let’s move on then.
By moving too quickly, you can run the risk of antagonizing your audience, and that might even cause your audience to turn on you. After all, if several people have questions they are not getting a chance to ask, your misguided attempt to make room for their questions feels disingenuous to them.
Here’s the solution, and you’re not going to like it… at first. Every time you ask an audience if they have any questions, you’re going to wait ten seconds before you move on. Wait – here’s the part you’re not going to like. You are going to put your hand behind your back and actually count to ten with your fingers. You’re going to do this because if you count to ten in your head, your internal clock will do the counting and it’s going to sound more like “one, five ten.”
When I used to teach a five-day presentation skills class to trainers at Xerox, I always taught them the ten second rule. When I mentioned they were going to wait ten seconds, and actually count it out behind their backs, many would smirk and doubt the value of doing this. From my lectern, I would take out a counter and tell them this: “Over the next five days, I’m going to count each time I get a question after at least five seconds of waiting, and I’ll bet you that I hit this counter at least a half a dozen times.” In six years, I never lost that bet.
I’m quite sure you’re still wondering about all of this: “Ten seconds sounds like a crazy long length of time! What in the world could an audience be doing that we have to wait so long for a question?” They are thinking. They are thinking about what you just taught them. They’re reflecting on how the information you presented relates to their world. They’re taking the pieces of information that you just taught them, and they’re putting the information together so it makes sense to them. This takes time.
Learning how to strategically pause when you ask for questions from a group might be the single most effective way to connect with your audience and establish real credibility. It starts with ignoring the false reads from your internal clock, and using a more disciplined approach to slowing down. Once you do that, you’ll be earning the trust of others as well as demonstrating real, honest, listening.