The Power of the Pause in Public Speaking

Atal Bihari Vajpayee: The pregnant pause lengthens forever

This was the title of the tribute by T.K Arun in the Economic Times. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was known for his oratory as well as his pauses.

In this context, I am reminded of the song ‘The Sound of Silence’ by Simon and Garfunkel.  Silence does have a sound. And the effective use of silence in communication, often speaks louder than words.

As a public speaker, you have to incorporate pauses at the right places, in the right moments -to create your own rhythm & connect with your audience. Pauses help your audience understand & absorb your message. They add meaning & power to your words.

THE PREGNANT|DRAMATIC PAUSE-This pause often suggests more than what is expressed in words. It is pregnant with unexpected possibilities- usually longer than the other pauses. It adds a dramatic impact to what you are about to say. It is often used in comedy, suspense and by experienced & polished speakers to heighten anticipation in the listener.

THE MEANINGFUL PAUSE – It is the most essential pause in  communication & is meant for clarity. The meaningful pause is used between phrases that express complete ideas. It helps your audience make meaning of & absorb your message. Meaningful pauses are the commas & full-stops of spoken communication.

THE EMOTIONAL PAUSE- It is used for emotional quality. Motivational speakers & leaders use this pause effectively in similar sounding, repetitive phrases, to arouse emotions in the audience.

THE PHYSIOLOGICAL PAUSE -This is the pause, you need to replenish your breath. However, as a speaker you cannot pause at random to breathe in, as it will affect the meaning & impact of your message. You have to co-ordinate your physiological pause with the above pauses. The best way to master your pauses is to learn & develop efficient breathing. Breath training helps you when you have to speak long phrases and deliver a powerful & emotional message.

The most precious things in speech are pauses -Ralph Richardson, British Actor.


Hydrating the body is vital for its functioning as the adult human body is approximately 60-65 % water. Dehydration or inadequate hydration affects every cell, organ and system in the body, including the vocal system. Those who seek help for vocal problems often have their own reasons for not drinking enough water – some who drink as few as 1- 2 glasses a day because they think it is adequate; others who believe their tea, coffee or cola intake takes care of their hydration; some who argue that they don’t need to drink water since they don’t feel thirsty.

How does inadequate water intake affect the voice?

Inadequate water affects the efficient functioning of the vocal folds. The vocal folds are responsible for phonation i.e converting the airflow from the exhaled breath into acoustic energy or the raw sound. When we speak, the vocal folds vibrate and there is contact between the covering layers of the two vocal folds. Normally, the natural structure of the vocal fold lining and a layer of thin mucus protect the vocal folds from trauma caused by speaking or singing. The mucus acts as a lubricant for the vibrating vocal folds. Water provides the raw material for producing this layer of mucus. Inadequate water means the mucus tends to be thick & viscous [sticky] and the vocal fold tissues are dry which make them vulnerable to vocal injury. Dehydration increases vocal effort [by raising the viscosity of the vocal folds and therefore the phonation threshold pressure].

Professional voice users and performers need to use the voice for long hours, often at the extremes of the pitch & dynamic range. Very often, they work in environments and conditions that are not conducive to vocal health. As a result, they make themselves vulnerable to vocal problems and injuries, if they fail to drink adequate amounts of water. Water also hydrates and lubricates the mucous membranes [lining] of the throat and mouth, making articulation or speaking easier.

Does drinking water during a performance/presentation help in hydrating the vocal folds?

This will instantly moisten the lining membranes of the mouth and throat, but it does not work immediately for the vocal folds. Water that you drink through the day reaches all the cells in your body, including those in your vocal folds through the blood stream and hydrates them. It takes anywhere between 30 minutes to 2 hours for water to hydrate your vocal folds.

Recognizing vocal fold dehydration

These are a few indicators [Note that the following symptoms could also indicate other vocal and physical problems]

  • Your mouth and throat feel dry and scratchy
  • You often need to clear your throat
  • Your urine looks yellow/dark
  • Voice use is effortful
  • You feel thirsty very often


A few factors that contribute to dehydration of the vocal folds:

These are a few indicators [Note that the following symptoms could also indicate other vocal and physical problems]

  • Caffeine in coffee, cocoa, chocolates, colas and to a lesser extent in tea
  • Alcohol
  • Dry, polluted, hot, air conditioned and air heated environments
  • Sugar/ sweets/ lozenges
  • Mouth breathing- habitual or due to a blocked nose
  • Health issues and disorders like diabetes, hypertension, anemia, among others
  • Medications used for colds, cough, depression, anxiety, hypertension, very high doses of vitamin C, among others

Staying hydrated for a healthy voice:

The amount of water you drink depends on your health, lifestyle, physical activity and environment. A general recommendation for healthy adults, especially if you are a professional or occupational voice user is between 2.5 to 3.5 liters of water in a day. Here are a few ways to keep yourself hydrated and ensure that you drink water however busy you are. [It does not apply to you if you have renal, cardiac or other health issues that call for restriction of water intake]

  • Don’t wait to drink water till you are thirsty. Thirst is a sign of dehydration.
  • Eat fruits and vegetables as they will contribute to your water intake. They will also give you the additional health benefits from fiber, vitamins and minerals
  • Reduce your consumption of coffee, colas, alcohol and other vocal dehydrators mentioned above. For every cup/unit of coffee, cola, alcohol you consume, drink an extra glass or two of water.
  • If you spend a good part of your day in an air conditioned or heated space, live or work in a smoky or dusty environment or under hot lights in a studio or on stage, drink more water.
  • Keep water handy at all times. Always carry a bottle of water with you. Have a bottle or two at your work desk.

  • Health issues and disorders like diabetes, hypertension, anemia, among others
  • Medications used for colds, cough, depression, anxiety, hypertension, very high doses of vitamin C, among others
  • Start your day with a glass or two of water.
  • The color of your urine is an indicator of how well hydrated your body and the vocal folds are. The paler, the better.
  • Air travel dehydrates the vocal folds. Keep your talking in the airplane to an absolute minimum and drink more water when you fly.
  • Keep your vocal folds well hydrated before a performance, presentation or rehearsal
  • Seek medical help if you are a mouth breather

Warm or cold?

What is important is to drink enough water whichever way you like it. If cold water does not affect your throat in any way, there is no reason for you to stop drinking it. However, drinking cold or iced water may affect the throat possibly through vasoconstriction i.e by shrinking your blood vessels. Drinking cold or iced water just before or during a performance may constrict the throat muscles. Water at room temperature, during a performance/presentation is a safe bet.


Preparing your Voice, Breath and Body

For most speakers, preparing for a presentation involves working on the content and power point slides. ‘What you say’ is important. But ‘How you say it’, is what transforms a good presentation into a brilliant one. If you want to be perceived as charismatic and memorable, learn to prepare and use your voice and body effectively for presentations.

A few things you can do to prepare ‘Your- Self’:

  • Tap into the full potential of your breath. Learn to effectively use the lower chest and abdomen (belly) to power your voice
  • Develop healthy posture. Learn to keep your spine and body aligned.
  • Learn to use the right vocal pitch, intonation, inflections, pace and tone
  • Practise your vocal delivery regularly for a few days before the presentation. Your vocal delivery should empower your message & enhance your professional image
  • Record your presentation and listen to it objectively. Check if you are sounding monotonous, too fast or slow, too soft or high pitched.
  • Learn to improvise to sound conversational and natural


Using your Voice, Breath and Body effectively while Presenting

A few things you should be aware of while you present:

  • Take a few relaxed breaths before you start speaking
  • Align your spine and centre your body before you start speaking
  • Avoid holding your breath when you are planning what to say next
  • Learn to make effective use of pauses. Don’t use vocal fillers like ‘Uhm, Uh’. Breathe whenever you pause
  • Avoid using long sentences that will strain your breathing. Your audience will also find it difficult to understand you
  • Speak at a pace that is not too fast or slow. Vary your pace depending on your content
  • Make yourself interesting with vocal variations, often referred to as voice modulation in India
  • Avoid wearing high heels and waist hugging clothes so that you don’t squeeze your body and breath
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