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Use the Power of the Pause to Strengthen Your Storytelling
by Chris King

When we are telling stories to a group, and especially as a newer storyteller, one of the most difficult techniques to master is the use of the pause. Even in everyday conversation, most people have a problem with silence. Somehow we feel we must always fill a space with words. And yet silence and a pause during the telling of a story not only enhances the audience’s understanding of the story, it also builds anticipation. In this article I discuss the whys and how of using pauses to strengthen your storytelling.

Begin with silence. It takes “guts” to stand in front of an audience after being introduced without saying something immediately, but this can prove to be one of the strongest ways to get their attention and to create rapport. I suggest that we start our storytelling by standing quietly, making eye contact with audience members, letting them make contact with us, and then once everyone is comfortable and waiting with anticipation, start with a dynamic story. You will be amazed at the level of attention this produces. And, if you choose to start with a story that involves the listeners, you will find that they will be ready to give you their all and participate freely, because you have already created a bond with them through your silence.

Pause to develop relationship between you and your listeners. During a pause, the storyteller is more like a listener. This is a time when both are listening and the teller can take note of the audience’s quality of listening. We might realize that as the teller we need to change course and tell a light or humorous story. Or it may be time to have the group repeat a phrase or sing along. If, however, we don’t take a moment to evaluate reactions and interest, we might just forge ahead without the audience’s attention or enjoyment of our stories.

Pause with purpose. There are many times throughout a storytelling performance that a pause can add emphasis and/or give the listener a chance to ponder, or even laugh. When we have just told the turning point or points in a story, the listeners need to have time to think about what we just said, or catch up. Even though we can hear words faster than anyone can speak, we do need a moment or two or three to dream our own dreams, see our own images, and create our own version of the story. If, as storytellers, we give participants enough time, they will be much more likely to internalize and remember the story so they can share it with others later. I have also heard storytellers who tell a humorous story and then don’t let the audience members have time to “get it” and laugh. People need time to laugh. And laughter is important because it bonds the audience and teller.

Use pauses to build anticipation. When a leading child psychologist was asked what one important tip he would give parents to keep their children happy, he replied, “Give them something to anticipate every day. Children thrive on anticipation.” Actually we all do. We love the anticipation of looking forward to something special. And, in the same way, we love a story that makes us hang on the words until we find out what happens. As storytellers, if we pause at exciting points in the story, we will hook the listeners and guarantee that they will stay with us. If we speed along too quickly without stopping for emphasis, they won’t have time to anticipate what they think may have occurred. The pauses give them time to wonder and also help build suspense.

Transition with pauses. As a storyteller if you jump from one part of the story to another too quickly and without warning, you will leave your listeners behind or confused. When this happens, they will oftentimes “tune out” and you have lost them for the rest of your story. A well-placed pause will help you and them prepare for the next part of your story, whether it is a change of scene, of character(s), or mood.

Pause for a show of confidence and a natural style. The confident pause is an earmark of the accomplished storyteller. The courage to stop the flow of words is an act of trust in the power of your presence, your nonverbal communication, and your relationship to your listeners.

Being able to slow down and pause will give your delivery a natural and relaxed quality, which, in turn, relaxes the listeners and takes away the attention on the storyteller, placing it where it should be — on the story.


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