This Might Give You PAUSE
This Might Give You Pause
I'm a little bit obsessed with Winston Churchill. He was undeniably an extraordinary leader, but what captivates me, as well as countless others, especially given my line of work, is his mastery as an orator.
Most of my clients are working on developing their public speaking skills in some form or another, and Churchill often comes to my mind as the epitome of powerful and effective communication.
One aspect that truly showcases his brilliance is his unparalleled command of the power of the pause. Here, I'll delve into this particular aspect of his delivery and provide some advice and practice exercises (in red) on how to tap into your inner Churchill, taking you one step closer to becoming the masterful speaker you truly are capable of being.
Let's break down his process. Churchill would start by writing his speeches word for word because he believed in the importance of knowing and understanding precisely what he wanted to say before delivering a speech. (This isn't to say that this is what I typically tell my clients to do.)
Next, he would speak aloud as his secretary typed his words since speaking is the medium for oration and gives the narrative a more natural flow. He understood well the difference between the literary world of preparing a speech or presentation and the world of orality in which that speech is delivered.
Then, he meticulously edited—everything. Churchill also understood that speaking for leadership goes beyond organizing a speech well; it entered the realm of dramatic performance.
He rehearsed passages, again and again, repeating them out loud.
Once he had the final version of a speech he planned to deliver, he (probably his secretary) would type it on pieces of paper measuring around 4 inches x 8 inches. The text would be formatted in broken lines to aid in his delivery, often referred to as "speech form" by a British cabinet member. On some occasions, he committed his speeches to memory, while on others, he relied upon these "notes."
Churchill channeled the instincts of a poet or singer. When words and delivery mattered crucially, such as in his radio addresses to the world before entering WWII, every word and every PAUSE was considered.
What his fellow politicians might have assumed were "typical" notes was actually a speech completely written and delivered word for word. They included what can only be described as stage directions, such as "pause; grope for a word; stammer; correct self…" creating the illusion of spontaneity.
Churchill said he spent an hour working on every minute of a speech he made.
Now, again, I'm not suggesting you follow Churchill's exact process. It's just not practical to dedicate such extensive time and effort to such meticulous work. Then again, most of us are not delivering speeches that hold the weight of the world in balance.
In our own pursuits, we must embrace pragmatism—which Churchill actually had, and tailor our speeches and preparation practices to suit our specific needs. The approach we adopt will vary depending on the context, significance, and time constraints of our speaking events.
For instance, sometimes we may only have time to jot down a few notes or even single words on a page to trigger our thoughts. We then practice speaking our points aloud until they sound clear, coherent and articulate before heading into our meeting. By the way, if you're not already doing this, it's an excellent habit to cultivate.
Some of my clients have expressed the concern that if they practice their points out loud, it won't sound spontaneous and natural for the real thing. Wrong supposition! In reality, practicing aloud boosts your confidence for effectively communicating your message while also ensuring you remain fully present in the moment.
Another challenge people face is delivering a pitch or repeating something they've said many times before—or even memorized, and end up sounding stale and lifeless. They tend to use long, complex sentences and they hardly ever pause!
We don't think in long sentences; we think in thought groups. It's how we process oral language, as well.
If your written speech contains lengthy sentences, it's essential to adapt it when delivering it orally. Opt for short, concise sentences and incorporate plenty of pauses, just as we naturally do in real conversation.
Leonard Bernstein once said that music is what happens between the notes. Communication happens in between your words. You need to give your ideas time and space to land and resonate in the minds of your listeners. It will also allow you room to think.
So, on to the exercise. The purpose of the exercise is to become more familiar and comfortable with the feeling of pausing in your planned speeches.
There are several different ways to approach pausing, and here is one:
You're going to read a passage aloud, and you're going to close your mouth at the end of each line. Take a moment to let your lungs fill with air, and then proceed to the next line.
Pay attention to how your delivery feels and sounds as you speak, both during and after you finish.
This exercise uses slight exaggeration--the mouth closing, for the purpose of really reinforcing the connection to breath and pause. You can then bring it down a notch in real contexts.
-You can choose a poem or a nursery rhyme for this exercise. Here's a passage of advice from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London that you can use:
Everything I say is the result of thought /
Every thought I have needs a breath /
Breathing is also known as inspiration /
Therefore I inspire the thought with breath /
Which in turn becomes sound /
And with articulation becomes speech /
Then I can turn the speech into words /
In order to share with the audience my original thought. /
Next, try applying the technique to something you might say in your real life, such as introducing yourself at a meeting or practicing an explanation you plan to give.
We pause naturally when we chat. It's when we're under pressure that we struggle—the exact moments when we really need to make a great impression. Breath-holding, shallow breathing, inability to think clearly, rambling speech and a whole lot of "ums" will persistently undermine your ability to connect, unless you take pause ;) and reconsider this crucial aspect of communication.
To bring this a little closer to more recent times and really drive it home—especially for my clients who work in sales or who speak by phone very frequently, let's consider a study conducted by the University of Michigan in 2011. The study explored how aspects of speech influence decision-making during telephone conversations. Unsurprisingly, tone, pace, and pauses all mattered. However, the factor that had the greatest impact? Pausing. Those who paused naturally—i.e. at the natural ends of thoughts—were the most effective. We tend to trust a more "human-sounding" voice--one that is connected to a body that stops to breathe.
Now—Want to try the technique with Churchill's speech?
EXERCISE: Read the passage aloud, written both ways. Record it if you'd like.
This is a portion of the first address to the nation Churchill made as prime minister, delivered over the radio on May 19, 1940.
CHURCHILL'S SPEECH AS WRITTEN
"In the air—often at serious odds, often at odds hitherto thought overwhelming—we have been clawing down three or four to one of our enemies; and the relative balance of the British and German Air Forces is now considerably more favorable to us than at the beginning of the battle. In cutting down the German bombers, we are fighting our own battle as well as that of France. My confidence in our ability to fight it out to the finish with the German Air Force has been strengthened by the fierce encounters which have taken place and are taking place. At the same time, our heavy bombers are striking nightly at the tap-root of German mechanized power, and have already inflicted serious damage upon the oil refineries on which the Nazi effort to dominate the world directly depends."
CHURCHILL'S SPEECH AS SPOKEN
"In the air,
often at serious odds,
often at odds hitherto thought overwhelming—
we have been clawing down three or four to one
of our enemies;
and the relative balance of the British and German Air Forces
is now considerably more favorable to us
than at the beginning of the battle.
In cutting down the German bombers,
we are fighting our own battle as well as that of France.
My confidence in our ability to fight it out to the finish
with the German Air Force
has been strengthened by the fierce encounters
which have taken place and are taking place.
At the same time,
our heavy bombers are striking nightly at the tap-root of German mechanized power,
and have already inflicted serious damage
upon the oil refineries
on which the Nazi effort
to dominate the world directly depends."
If you have recorded yourself, take a moment to listen back to the two readings. Did you notice a significant difference between the two? I'm confident that you did.
As a final note, Churchill saw the ability to speak powerfully and persuasively as the most important of all the talents, saying that the art of speech 'wields a power more durable than that of a great king' because it made one 'an independent force in the world. Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices. Whoever can command this power is still formidable.'
It's truly remarkable how Churchill's mastery of communication, including his use of pauses, continues to inspire and teach us valuable lessons today.
Gives one pause, no?
So, take some time to really consider how YOU use pauses and the impact that you can create through the strategic use of silence and well-timed pauses—events that happen naturally in real, human communication.