Timing is Everything

Whether Giving A Speech Or Just Speaking One-On-One, The Timing Of What We Say Is As Important As The Words We Choose. 

By Thomas J. Roach

Timing is everything. Haven’t we all made what should have been a welcome comment, but it turned out to be unwelcome because of when we said it? And haven’t we all discovered rare moments when we realized we were able to tell someone something that we have wanted to tell them for months or even years, and because the timing was right they listened and were grateful to hear it?

People are moving targets. Our moods change; our focus shifts; our attention comes and goes. The right message delivered at the right time by the right person scores a bullseye. The same message sent in an unreceptive communication configuration misses the mark.

Timing is important when determining when to speak, but on another level, timing how we speak is also essential. Pauses in our sentences tell our listeners what words are important; pauses give listeners time to think about what was just said or to anticipate what will be said next, and pauses indicate that we are making an effort to be heard and are not engaging in monotonous, idle conversation.

One of the most quoted speeches of the 20th century is President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s Inaugural Address. President Kennedy pauses seven times when he said, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” 

It is also worth noting that, both before and after the line, he takes a relatively long six second pause. The words are certainly well chosen, but the delivery is surgical. 

Timing is also crucial during a presentation with visuals. Back in the days when we used overhead projectors, we had an expression of advice: “clear the visual.” This meant that the speaker should put the image on the projector with a blank sheet coving it. Then introduce the visual, pull the cover off, read everything on the screen to the audience, then put the sheet back on top of the visual and continue the presentation. 

Using programs like PowerPoint make presenting visuals less complicated, but the principle still applies. You don’t want people reading the visual while you are talking. You won’t have their attention. In most cases visuals should have a minimum amount of words, the font should be large, and the speaker should read the visual to the audience as soon as it comes up. It is also useful to pause to give the audience time to contemplate what they are seeing and hearing before continuing to talk. 

Worst Case
The worst-case scenario is when a speaker puts up a complicated chart that has so much copy that it can’t be read in a few seconds and that uses small type making it difficult to read. Then, while the audience is squinting at the screen, the speaker tries to continue the speech or presentation. 

Keeping the attention of the audience is also a problem when physically passing out material during a presentation. If you pass out something, you must wait and give the audience time to read it or read it to them. Then you need to work to regain their attention for the rest of your presentation. If possible, it is best to send materials out to the audience before the presentation or pass them out after you are done speaking. 

On some occasions pausing can be used to control applause. In an upbeat atmosphere, like a keynote speech at an annual conference, audiences may be expecting to applaud during the speech, and all a speaker needs to do is pause and wait, and the audience will almost always start to applaud.

One word of caution. The above recommendations invite scrutiny. The best advice for someone bluffing their way through a presentation is speak fast and clear out of the room. 

Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].

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