The Importance of Pace and The Power of Pause

If you’re like most people on the planet, the pace of your speech speeds up when you’re excited, nervous or even passionate about something. A speedy delivery can be very effective when you have great news to share with friends, but it’s decidedly less so when you’re pitching new business or trying to impress a senior executive. When you speak like you’re trying to beat a shot clock, your audience can’t keep up with you or connect with your content. And that’s a shame because you’ve got great ideas that are worth listening to. What’s a fast talker to do?

The best place to start is silence, and recognize that it is easier to stop talking than it is to slow down. Rather than focus on the number of words per minute coming out of your mouth, take a breath, a beat, and pause. Here are ten ways you can prompt yourself to do just that:

  1. Enumerate. When you enumerate the points you’re making, you’re naturally inclined to pause after the number. As a bonus, enumeration adds clarity to your communication. And people think you’re organized.

  2. Truncate. Don't be afraid to follow an enumerated point with a truncated expression or sub-header. For example: "First. [Pause.] Nature versus nurture. [Pause.] While many people may come down on the side of DNA to explain extraordinary performers, I am squarely on the side of nurture…"

  3. Ask rhetorical questions. Why? Well, what follows a rhetorical question? A pause! Few people use rhetorical questions, which is a shame because they’re helpful pause prompters. And your audience will be even more mentally engaged in your talk as their brains try to answer your rhetorical question. As an aside, any time you think you are losing your audience and you want them back, simply pose a rhetorical question. Of course, you don't want to overuse rhetorical questions, but very few speakers even come close to risking overuse.

  4. Pause your hands. On occasion, you may want to use your hands to delineate the points you’re making. When you do so, try to leave your hands in place for longer. If you are discussing the objectives for two parties in a transaction (say, a record label and a recording artist), you may use your hands to delineate what each party is trying to achieve. As you physically delineate the parties in the space in front of you, leave your hands out, holding the place you’ve created for each party, for longer. This will enhance your presence, increase your clarity, and prompt you to pause.

  5. Follow empathic points up with some silence. One of the challenges for fast talkers is that their emphatic statements don’t land with the intended emphasis because they get lost in a flood of words. Make it easy for people to capture, consider, and retain your most important points.

  6. Make emphatic statements s l o w l y. If trying to add some silence after your most important points isn’t prompting you to pause, try making your emphatic points as slowly as you can. Watch George H. W. Bush in 1998 saying, “Read. My. Lips. No. New. Taxes." He may not have delivered on his promise, but he did deliver his message and he got elected.

  7. Use some short sentences. Those who speak quickly are often also blessed with verbal fluidity—they have no trouble finding new words to follow their last ones. As a result, they often speak with long sentences that contain multiple subordinate clauses. As one sentence rolls into the next, it is difficult to identify where one paragraph ends and a new one begins. Short sentences stand out. Use them. And if you follow them with a pause, they’ll work extra hard for you.

  8. Proactively create silence. This is a deceptively simple tip. For those who are willing to incorporate it, it can deliver huge returns. Often the simplest thing you can do to improve your speaking is nothing, except revel in some silence.

  9. Lengthen the duration of eye contact. Somehow, there is a string and pulley system that connects your eyes to your pace. When your eyes slow down, so does your voice. Try to lengthen the duration of eye contact per person to 3 to 5 seconds and wait for a comma or period before turning to the next person. This will strengthen your connection with your audience, enhance your presence, and slow down your pace.

  10. Increase the volume. Volume is often another string-and-pulley connection to your pace. When you increase the volume, your pace slows down.

To take these tips for a test drive, enroll a friend or a colleague and tell them you are working on your fast talking ways and trying to add more pauses to your presentations. Then go ahead and try to explain something to them with way too many pauses and pauses that feel much too long. Then, ask them for their feedback. There will likely be a huge gap between how appropriate you thought the pauses were compared to their experience. It is rare that anyone ever successfully pauses in ways that those listening find to be too frequent or too long. Use their feedback to help you grow.

Adding pauses will help you slow down and allow your audience to capture more of your gems. They will help you harness your passion without losing the essence of you or your message.

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How Do You Prepare for a Presentation? The Third and Final Step is REHEARSAL.

Rehearsing is the ugly, unloved stepchild of presentation prep. Few people like it and many don’t do it at all. I suspect a coincidence...

But it’s a crucial step in your prep no matter how ugly and painful it might be. Why? Because you’ve been immersed in the trees while designing and developing your content and you need to get out and see the forest before you step on stage.

To bring your very best on the podium, I recommend the following Rehearsal phases:

Acknowledge the Resistance

The first and very important phase in the rehearsal process is to acknowledge the serious resistance you likely have to rehearsing at all. Often acknowledging the resistance, and often the underlying anxiety associated with delivering the presentation, can make it easier to get into action. Consider the buddy system and ask a friend sit in on your dry run. A test audience will bring accountability and humanity to the exercisethey can build you up when you inevitability beat yourself up.

Do a Topline Talk Through

Once you’ve looked resistance square in the hairy eyeball, it’s time to do a topline talk through. Look at your presentation in the Slide Sorter view in your presentation software and do a “talk through”.  Talk through the main points you’re planning to cover on each slide but don’t present them in detail. Don’t do this in your head—talk it through out loud. This allows you to see (and hear) the broader narrative and confirm that it’s the one you want to share. If it’s not, or something is missing, you will quickly find the parts of your presentation that need to be tweaked.

Eat Your Speech

Present the content out loud sitting down with your notes right in front of you and rely on them heavily. This is where you’re going to find out that some of the language and turns of phrase you’ve chosen work really well in writing but they don’t work at all in your mouth. (I choked on “predilection” last week while rehearsing and chose ”predisposition” instead.) You’ll discover which parts are dense and dragging and which parts need some more embellishment with examples.  This is an essential step because you’re getting to know your presentation well and “eating your speech” to the point where you won’t have to rely on your notes.

Add The Magic

Once you’ve eaten your speech, start to focus more on the delivery and the storytelling, relying less and less on your notes with each run through. This is the step where you think about and add relevant gestures, pauses, audience interaction and rhetorical questions. This is when you start adding the magic.

Tackle the Top and Tail

If you don’t have time to rehearse your entire presentation, rehearse the first few minutes and the last few minutes. Speakers are most uncomfortable at the beginning because they’re not yet talking about their subject matter expertise and they’re managing pent up anxiety. Practice the first two minutes of your talk 3 – 5 times. That is 10 minutes of your life very well spent. It’s much better to spend 10 minutes rehearsing the top of your presentation than to spend those 10 minutes mucking about with your slides. The former delivers massive returns, the latter marginal. Yes, I know, messing with slides is more comfortable than rehearsing, but rehearsing will make you more comfortable on the podium.

And you need to figure out how to close. Don’t build momentum and then grind to a halt. Summarize the top three most relevant ideas you presented that address your audience’s pressing needs. Consider one final story that will illustrate the benefit of the overall approach you are advocating and drive home the Call to Action. Close strong.

Make sure you take advantage of all the time and energy you’ve invested in researching your audience, setting your objectives and designing your content. Don’t let it all that good work go to waste because you don’t make the time to rehearse.

Because that’s like going to the beach without a bathing suit: you can do it, but it’s not recommended.

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How Do You Prepare for a Presentation? The Second Step is PLANNING.

Once you’ve done a good job getting clear on who your audience is and what they care about, you’re ready to start setting some Communication Objectives and mapping out your Content.



Before you even open PowerPoint, you have to get crystal clear on your Communication Objectives. What are you trying to accomplish with your presentation? These three questions will help you clarify your objectives before you start mapping out your content:

1.    What do you want your audience to DO as a result of listening to you? What decision or change in thinking or behaviour do you want to affect?

2.    What does your audience need to KNOW to be motivated to take these actions? What information do they need to make that decision or embrace that change?

3.    How do you want your audience to FEEL as a result of your presentation? What emotions do you want to stir up over the course of your talk? For example, you might want to move them from uncertainty to anxiety to confidence and then clarity.

This “feelings” piece is often the hardest to reflect on and apply in the business context because business communication tends to be extremely rational. But if you want your content to connect, you have to dig into and design for emotional response. You can evoke relevant emotions through the examples you provide and the stories that you share.

And if you’re feeling some Communication Objectives shame because you rarely think about these questions before you start and/or during your presentation prep, you’re in good company. Many of my clients aren’t able to answer these questions either—even after they think they’re done mapping out their presentation content!

Taking a strategic approach to your content development requires that you think about your objectives up front, before you start mucking around in PowerPoint. I highly recommend that you do your presentation planning process in analogue mode, with pen and paper or Sharpie markers and Post-It notes. This approach encourages more divergent, generative thinking and curbs the temptation to dump list after long list of dry bullets into endless PowerPoint slides. It also disrupts the classic slide shuffling/editing trance.

(It’s important to note that this objective setting exercise will be frustrating and fruitless if you don’t know who your audience is and what they care about. If you haven’t done your Research Your Audience homework, do it now!)



Once you’re clear on your Communication Objectives, you’re ready to frame your remarks and develop compelling support (examples and stories) to bring your ideas to life.

And lest you think you can skip this step, consider what it would be like to eat at a cafeteria without a tray, plates, glasses or food. You need something to hold everything together, containers to put things in and food to enjoy when you sit down. The same is true with a presentation: you need a primary promise that carries your content and makes it easy for your audience to stay with you, “containers” to put your content in and delicious examples and stories to make your presentation memorable.

Statement of Purpose

You will want to start with a Statement of Purpose that will outline what you’re going to talk about and why. A helpful way to find and articulate your Statement of Purpose is to answer the following question:

What is the most pressing question that your audience has, especially as it relates to your experience and expertise?

It’s usually a good idea to answer this question right up front, soon after you share your Statement of Purpose. Audiences are impatient and they’re eager to to know why they should listen. Don’t be afraid to show them the last page first as it will help them relax and enjoy your presentation. An exception to this guideline is if you find yourself speaking to an audience with a negative bias that doesn’t align with your purpose and promise. If that’s the case, you will want to save the conclusion until the end and build your argument so you can bring the audience along on the “I’m going to prove it to you” journey.

Three Essential Messages

When you’ve got your Statement of Purpose articulated ask HOW and WHY. The answers to HOW and WHY will provide the sub-structure to your presentation and help you establish your three Essential Messages. It’s important that you keep your Essential Messages to only three because research suggests that things that come in threes are inherently more satisfying and easier to understand and remember. Make sure your three Essential Messages are discrete from one another.

Support and Proof

Under each of your Essential Messages, you’ll then develop your Support and Proof, the evidence that makes each of your three Essential Messages clear and compelling. Be sure to use as many examples and stories as you can. It’s not enough to share data and knowledge. You want your audience to feel certain ways as you move through your Essential Messages so choose your anecdotes and examples accordingly. And be sure to share your most compelling Support and Proof first unless you need to build something that requires sequential logic to understand. The sooner you have your audience agreeing with you, the better!


Once you’ve moved through your Essential Messages and their related Support and Proof, you’ll be ready to craft your Summary.  Your Summary is simply a collection of key reminder points from each of your Essential Messages so the audience can get that key content one last time before you move on to your closing.

Commanding Opening and Compelling Close

When you’ve worked out your primary presentation content, you’re ready to design your Commanding Opening and your Compelling Close. The Commanding Opening must be relevant to your audience and link to your Statement of Purpose. Your Compelling Close will tie back to the Commanding Opening and include a Call to Action—what is it you want the audience to do as a result of your presentation? Make sure the Call to Action is clear and that you outline any relevant next steps before you wrap up and thank your audience and host.



When you take a structured approach to the design and development of your presentation content, you automatically compartmentalize your content in a way that makes it easy for your audience to understand and enjoy what you’re sharing. If you map out the journey for them—“we’re starting here, I’m setting out to answer this question by exploring these key themes, let’s get started with theme #1…”—and keep coming back to that framework your audience will not only stay with you, they will pick up what you’re putting down and take it home with them. This is the most important goal for presenters, one that so few achieve.

Yes, it does take time, patience and practice to effectively plan a presentation. But investing in planning will deliver huge returns in confidence, credibility and audience engagement. And it will help you stand out from the sea of planning-adverse presenters.

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How Do You Prepare for a Presentation? The First Step is RESEARCH.

You’re a smart, experienced professional with a depth of expertise and a range of experience that is exhaustive and the envy of those around you.

So when you’re asked to speak at a conference or to share your knowledge with a group of colleagues or clients, you look forward to sharing as much as you can about the aspects of your expertise and experience you think are important and interesting. Because more is better. More is greater value. More makes you look like a rock star.

And while you’re sharing all that MORE, your audience is trying not to drown from the well-intentioned content fire hose you’ve pointed at them.

These are two of the most common mistakes I see business leaders make when they are asked to share their expertise:

  1. They try to share way too much; and
  2. They talk about stuff they find fascinating and important and they share too much technical detail.

Both of these missteps have the same source – a lack of knowledge about the audience. And both of these missteps both produce the same painful outcome: irrelevance. And there is nothing worse than being the irrelevant, boring blowhard. Or a nerdy technocrat with no apparent appreciation for reality. No one asks those guys to come back.

So, how do you deliver an engaging, relevant talk? It might seem counterintuitive but you have to start with the audience. Not with your deep well of knowledge and expertise but with your audience and what’s important to them. Here are the questions I always get my clients thinking about:

  • What are the top 3 – 5 pressing questions, pain points or desires your audience has?
  • What are the sweat-inducing, stay-awake-at-night issues in their role/business?

If you’re not crystal clear on these key issues, you’ve got homework to do. Only when you know what your audience cares about will you be able to focus your talk and go selectively narrower and deeper, the hallmark qualities of a relevant and engaging presentation.

So, how do you figure out what your audience wants, especially if you’ve been asked to speak to a group you don’t know very well?  

Ask them. It seems incredibly obvious but you’d be surprised how few speakers ask the organizer, client or even members of their audience what they care about. They think they need to divine these truths. Not so. Most organizers, clients or audience members will be happy to talk to you about their broader business challenges and the issues they’re dealing with that relate to your specific expertise. In fact, they’re usually delighted to tell you all about it because it helps you help them. Think about the people who have a vested interest in your talk being a great success; they are your advocates and a great source of audience insight.

Talk to people in your network who are like your audience. If you can’t talk to people in or working on behalf of your audience, think about the people in your own network who are like your audience. Talk to them about the challenges, fears and vulnerabilities they have and ask them what they think your audience would like to hear about. Getting access to this information and insight will help you provide contextually relevant examples and that will ensure your content is meaningful. It will also dramatically boost your confidence.

Read, watch and listen. There is this amazing tool called the IN-TER-NET. Use it! Read annual reports, analyst commentary, insider blogs and press releases to get a sense of an organization’s moral, ego, issues and sensibilities. Watch video addresses given by senior leadership, listen to interviews they’ve done with mainstream and social media. You’re trying to understand their intellect, ego and personality as an organization or team or group of practitioners. Do they swagger? Or reflect? Are they open and hungry for new ideas and information? Or do they think they already know it all? What are they proud of? Embarrassed by? Wanting to win at?  The answers to these questions will not only help you focus your presentation they will also give you ideas about how to share your content. You want to find the intersection between you and your style of speaking and them and their approach to listening and learning. Good old-fashioned research can help with this.

And if you don’t have much luck doing your own research on the Internet, there are special places called LI-BRA-RIES.  Remember those? They still exist. You might even have one in your organization. Inside these fabled sanctuaries are specially trained people called librarians who can help you explore and answer just about any question. Take advantage of the resources in your community and within your organization.

Reflect on your own experience. Before you start mapping out your content, think about your own experience working with people who might be similar to the audience you’re going to speak to. What excited them? What worried them? How can you help them get what they want? And avoid what they don’t want? Reflect on the questions and concerns that were raised during past engagements with similar audiences.

Reference back. While I strongly recommend you do most of your audience research well before you set foot in the room, you can also do some learning when you get there. Get there early and talk to audience members before the session starts or during coffee breaks. If you’re comfortable refining and integrating on the fly, you can further contextualize your content by referencing back to conversations with audience members or other speakers. You can also actively reference back to people you spoke to during your research process, just make sure they’re comfortable being named and it’s appropriate to share what you spoke about.

It’s easy to fall into the “I’m the Pro in the Know” trap. Your experience and expertise is no doubt impressive and truly exceptional, but only a subset of it will be relevant to any given audience. Your job is figure out who your audience is and what they care about so you can share the most meaningful content you’ve got.


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How to Be a Great Panelist in 8 Simple Steps

When you reach a certain stage in your career or your business begins to get some attention in the press, you will start getting invitations to share your expertise and experience at conferences and events. One of the most common invitations that smart, interesting folks receive is the panelist request. An event organizer is pulling together a panel to discuss a particular topic and he is looking for people with an interesting point of view or relationship to the topic and you get the call.

These invitations are flattering and they can be a great opportunity to build your profile and share your knowledge and insight. And they can also a complete waste of time because they are often moderated poorly and populated by self-promoting gasbags who are looking for a soapbox.

Participating in a panel discussion can be challenging so the next time you’re invited to speak on a panel, try out these tips to make sure you and the audience get the most out of the experience.



  1. Understand the audience. Before you even agree to participate in a panel, talk to the organizer and/or moderator about the audience. Who will be in the audience and what is the level of their experience and expertise? Why are they attending the conference and/or panel? Ask to see the invite list to get a sense for what type of organizations and positions will be represented in the audience. Conference organizers often talk about their aspirational, not actual, audience. Make sure you’re clear on who you’re going to be speaking to and whether or not you have something to offer them before you say yes.
  2. Ask about objectives. Talk to the moderator about the objectives for the discussion. Find out what she is hoping to have each panelist contribute. Ask specifically what she hopes the audience will do, what they need to know to do that and how she would like them to feel during the panel discussion. You want to feel confident that you have something meaningful to contribute.
  3. Clarify expectations. When you’re speaking with the moderator, clarify what’s expected of you in terms of the format. Is it a true panel discussion or is it a series of short presentations from each of the panelists? Are interruptions and counterpoints encouraged or frowned upon? Make sure you are comfortable with the format before you agree to participate.
  4. Research the expertise of your fellow panelists. Be clear on what each person on the panel will likely contribute to the panel discussion and how your content will augment the expertise of the others. Sometimes the best reason to participate on a panel is to network with your fellow panelists. If you make them shine, you’ll be sure to catch some of their reflected light.


  1. Plan and prioritize. Once you’re clear on the nature of the audience, the likely contribution of your fellow panelists and the objectives associated with the panel, it’s time to plan and prioritize your points. Don’t try to cover the whole waterfront. Ask yourself which ideas will best serve your audience and prepare short vignettes and crisp examples to illustrate them and subtly showcase your experience.

  2. Contribute thoughtfully. Add dynamism to the discussion by building on other people’s contributions. The moderator is not the only one who can ask questions. Pose questions to the other panelists, either for clarity or to draw out other points of view. Engage others in your responses by giving specific panelists a heads up that you’d love to hear their thoughts after you’ve shared your ideas about a topic. Politely and respectfully provide a counterpoint when you disagree with something said. Nod in affirmation when you agree with another panelist. And don’t be afraid to take some leadership in drawing people who haven’t said much into the conversation. And be sure to monitor your own contribution. Don’t speak for the sake of speaking, no one likes a self-promoting blowhard. And beware of anxiety; it makes some people ramble. When you have nothing new to add, say that you agree with the others so the discussion can move along.

  3. Use your eyes and hands. Eye contact is even more important than you think. When responding to a question from the moderator, look at him first and then move to the audience and your fellow panelists. As you do so, be mindful of the position of the microphone. Don’t move your head so much that—in an effort to be an eye contact hero—you move away from the microphone and can’t be heard. Finish your response by looking at the moderator to signal you are done. And don’t forget about your hands. Rest your forearms on the table, not under the table, and use them to gesture as you make key points and acknowledge the moderator or your fellow panelists.

  4. Sit smart. Sit in the seat the furthest away from the moderator because it gives you the best vantage point to look at the moderator, the audience and your fellow panelists in a natural and fluid way. If you’re stuck in the middle, it’s tough to monitor the facial expressions of your fellow panelists. And get there early enough to go up and claim your chair. Make sure it is the right height and adjust if necessary. Push your notes far enough away that they are easy to see. It helps to bring a closed binder to set your notes on so they’re easier to see. Make sure you’re setting yourself up to have a strong, confident presence on the panel. It’s easy to shrink back in this format. Avoid the temptation to sink back into your chair. This contracts your diaphragm and reduces your presence. Be conscious of your posture and sit closer to the front of your seat and rest your forearms on the table when you are not using your hands. If you’re a woman and undecided about what to wear, be sure to ask about the physical set up. Will it be talk show style in easy chairs or a more traditional panel set up with chairs at a skirted table? Some set ups are more conducive to skirts than others!

The bottom line is this: panel discussions can be incredibly dull. It's best to ask questions and be prepared so you can have some fun and enjoy the contribution of the other panelists and the moderator. Audiences will enjoy the discussion if you do.

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