Foreign Films

The Pause that Refreshes

After several high school and college courses, a few classes at Berlitz, and numerous trips to France and Italy, I have developed enough facility in their languages to get by in their restaurants, hotels, and shops, but not nearly enough to have full conversations. However, I have also developed a taste for French and Italian cinema, and so my Netflix queue is populated primarily by such films. Of course, when I watch them, I have to rely on the subtitles for translation and drop my eyes to the bottom of the screen every time they change. As I do, my ears pick out some of the spoken words but, because the actors are natives, they speak too quickly for me to follow them—except for the words at the ends of their sentences.

Therein lies a lesson for presenters.

Whenever actors, public speakers, clergy, or people in conversation, end a sentence or a phrase, they usually pause. The pause gives the listeners—the audience—time to absorb the words. But when a presenter stands up in front of an audience, the stress of the situation triggers an adrenaline rush which produces time warp that causes the presenter to speak faster and rush past the pauses.

Watch any Woody Allen film and you’ll see the effect of stress on speech tempo. Most of his characters—as reflections of his own public persona—are neurotic people who get into complicated situations. As soon as the plot thickens, the characters’ words accelerate like a Ferrari on the open road. This is amusing in a Woody Allen film, but it can damage a presentation because the rapid pace not only makes a presenter appear harried; it garbles the presenter’s words. The latter problem is heightened when—in our globalized world—presenters speak to audiences for whom English is a second language.

That is where we come full circle to the lesson from foreign films. Professional actors pay as much attention to the cadence of their speech as they do to the tone of their voices; and so, when actors end their sentences, they pause to punctuate the meaning of an idea. Presenters are not actors, but their ideas do fall into logical phrases. Presenters would do well to give their audiences—whether native English speakers or English-as-a-second-language speakers—a moment to absorb their information by pausing at the ends of their phrases. The best way to create a pause is to drop your voice at the ends of your phrases. Sadly, many presenters today do the opposite; they let their voices rise at the ends of their phrases, producing the dreaded “Valley Girl” effect (the subject of an earlier post.) If you concentrate on dropping your voice, you will not only sound more authoritative, you will add those valuable pauses.

I attended a presentation given by a Frenchman who started his pitch as fast as a racehorse bolting out of the gate. In the first moments, I heard him say “zee ontairpreez,” and didn’t understand. But later on in the presentation, when he settled down and began pausing (if nothing else than to breathe) he spoke the words again. Only then did I realize that he had said, “the enterprise.”

Learn a lesson from foreign films and from the classic Coca-Cola slogan, take “the pause that refreshes.”

This post appeared on hbr.org

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