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‹ View all articles 14th September 2016

The Big O: Minding the gap

Public Speaking Essentials

The O in VOICE is for Gaps.

The O is for gaps, not because of the letter, but because of what's INSIDE the 'O' - a gap! The use of gaps is what makes all the difference between newbie public speakers and pros. Rookies often talk quickly and are in a hurry to get off the stage, while pros use considered and powerful pacing.  If you want to impress, few things are more powerful in public speaking than learning to 'mind the gap'.

There are two main types of gaps: between words and between sections of content.

Breathe between words

Haveyoueverlistenedtoaspeakertalkandtheynevertakeabreath

andtalksoquicklythattheirwordsrun

togethersothatyoucan'tunderstandanythingthey'resaying?

Time is a funny thing when you're speaking in public. It's super easy to to speak too fast without realizing. With so many things to worry about, opening lines/gestures/content/closing, it can be really easy to forget the most basic thing - speak at a rate of speed that your audience can keep up with!

There are three different patterns of emotion and behaviour that can cause you to speak too quickly.

Butterfly

You're about to speak. You're nervous, anxious, and downright flustered. You can't wait to get this speech over with! Adrenaline is coursing through your veins at warp speed. Your words come out as a jumble and you speak so fast no one has the ability to keep up with you.  If you find yourself in this state you need to ask yourself why are you nervous?

  • Is there someone intimidating in the audience?
  • What's riding on this speech? A promotion? Your reputation?
  • What are you threatening yourself with if you mess this speech up?

Here's what to do instead...

  • Be aware that you're in the Butterfly state. Awareness of what you're feeling and thinking is key!
  • Calm yourself down with a sip of water or deep breathing to slow down your heart rate.
  • Speak so slowly that it feels ridiculous. As long as you're not speaking so slowly that people are nodding off, slower speaking comes across as authoritative. Your calm will help the audience trust you.

Tigger

You know what they say about too much of a good thing...  That holds true for speaking as well. Too much enthusiasm for a topic will leave your audience chasing your words. Rather than thoughtfully pacing yourself with well timed gaps, there is a huge temptation to get everything out all at once. Why? Because you're super excited!

This is counter-intuitive, because you're just going to have to repeat everything if your audience doesn't 'get it' the first time.

Remember this:

  • Words take longer to travel across a room than across a table. What most would understand in a normal conversation will be too fast for an audience.
  • Conversations have a natural rhythm. You speak, I speak, You speak... etc. There is time for each of us to absorb the information given. That's just not the way it works in public speaking, where there's (usually) only a one-way flow of information. You need to speak slower than you think you do.
  • If you want to be enthusiastic, speaking without gaps between your words is NOT the way to go. Read more here about adding energy to your presentation.

Resident Expert

The last reason you might be talking to fast is if you don't appreciate the difference between your level of knowledge and that of the audience. Hey it seems obvious to you right? So it must be obvious to your audience too. Whether it's technical knowledge or where the bathrooms are located, you may be tempted to speak quickly just to 'get through' the information.

To see if you're doing this check out how the audience is reacting to you:

  • If the audience can understand you, you'll get eye contact and nods to show you they 'get it'.
  • Going too slowly will show you impatient fidgeting.
  • Speaking too quickly will bring uncomfortable audience facial gestures, leaning forwards to try to understand, or taking frantic notes.

 

Pause Between Sections

Now that you have mastered the gaps between words, your audience will understand you. Research has shown that gaps/pauses help audiences recall your message so we need to incorporate them into the meat of your content.

There are three main building blocks of public speaking: themes, sections, and details. Each of these has it's own degree of importance so you'll need to use gaps in slightly different ways.

Themes

Like most modern three act plays, a good speech will have three themes. When you start a new theme, leave a significant gap - at least five seconds - to signal to the audience that a major shift is happening.

Sections

Like scenes in a play, a section is a large chunk of information that relates to the theme. A two to three second pause is a good gap time between each section.

Details

Like the lines in a play, gaps between details are necessary.  It only need be a second, just long enough for you to take a breath and allow the point to be received by the audience. When you practice your speech add the gaps in your notes  to make sure you pace yourself.

 

Powerful Pause

The use of the gap for dramatic effect is the difference between an average and outstanding public speaker. Watch out, because in order to really pull this off you'll need to be prepared to be a bit uncomfortable. Also don't overuse this technique or your audience will think you're testing their intelligence.

  • Identify one or two important moments in your speech that you want to emphasise - the bits with the highest emotion or most compelling information.
  • Mold your important moment into a phrase that's snappy and memorable. The shorter the better. Practise extensively to get the feel of the sentence.
  • Add oomph to this important moment in your speech. Deliver the sentence and then leave a gap. Hold it. (This is where it gets hard) Hold it a little longer. Wait for the cue from the audience as your point sinks in. If your important moment is delivered well it will feel like a 'WOW' or 'AHA' or even a gasp.

Nail a powerful pause and you'll go from a total 'ham' to Hamlet. Without gaps, a famous well known speech is nothing more than a collection of confusing words.

This above all to thine own self be true and it must follow as the night the day thou canst not then be false to any man.

~

 

This above all: (pause)

to thine own self be true, (pause)

And it must follow (mini pause) as the night the day (long pause)

Thou canst not then be false to any man.(pause)

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