Barack Obama is known for using pauses in his speeches for emphasising his points. These well-placed breaks make it easier for people to remember what was said. Here the American president is making one of those pauses in his speech at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, earlier this year. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque, Reuters)

The art behind the perfect pause

Research shows that a half second can do the trick.

The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.

Research Fellow Kristina Lundholm Fors used the above quotation from Mark Twain in the introduction of her doctoral dissertation. For her PhD in linguistics she has studied how and why pauses occur in conversations.

Silence in the course of a conversation has a number of purposes and results. The duration of such a pause has a powerful effect on the flow of discourse ― including what the person listening remembers of your side of the discussion.

If you listen to a speech by President Obama you can’t help noticing how intentionally the charismatic leader places pauses between his words.

Fors has now shown exactly how long the pause in you speech can last before it starts getting embarrassing.

Time to inhale

There are all sorts or reasons for pausing amongst a stream of words. Physically, of course, we need to stop to breathe in. Most of us need pauses to plan what to say next. We are also giving other people the opportunity to enter the conversation.

In Fors’s world there are clear distinctions between the different types of pauses: What they mean, what causes them and why. And the longer the pause, the more awkward it gets.

Fors shows that if the pauses in a conversation run longer than four seconds the listener will have trouble getting the message. 

“Four seconds do not sound like a long time, but in the context of pauses this can feel like an eternity,” she says in a press release from the University of Gothenburg.

A half second is needed

The researcher operated with three types of sentences: sentences without pauses, sentences with a half-second pause and sentences with a pause lasting four seconds. Then she had volunteers sit in front of a screen showing various images. The sentences were played, telling the participants to touch a specific object on the screen.

When the pause lasted four seconds, lots of the participants pressed an object before the sentence was completed. The sentence seemed to have been finished because the break was so long. Also, the test persons had trouble remembering the content of the sentences which were without pauses or with the long-lasting pauses.

The sentences that gave the best results were the ones with a well-placed pause lasting a half second.

Read the Norwegian version of this article at

Translated by: Glenn Ostling

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