Public Speaking and Presentations (3/3): Emphasis and Pausing

By David Rose

Right – here we are again for the third and final part of my series on how to boost your public speaking and presentations skills.

The first two parts in this series have covered how to clearly structure your message and how to effectively link it with transitions and signposts. If you haven’t yet read these, I’d invite you to do so first 🙂

Now, we turn our attention to the remaining group of ingredients to ensure your public speaking is consistently effective and achieves the desired impact: emphasis and pausing.

1. Emphasis

Consider this combination of 11 words:

Yesterday had meeting client agreed three main objectives writing skills training

“Hold on a minute…” you’re probably thinking… that’s not very ‘grammatical’… No, it’s not! Have you understood it, though?

  I challenge you to quickly ‘expand’ it, predicting and filling in the missing words

You’ve most probably come up with something similar to this:

Yesterday I had a meeting with a client, where we agreed three main objectives for the writing skills training course [20 words]

  Key Concept 1

In English, only c.50% of the words communicate up to 100% of the meaning – i.e. in any given statement, some words are significantly more important than others in successfully communicating your intended message.

Consequence: highlighting these ‘more important’ words will make your intended message clearer – i.e. easier for your your audience to understand and with more impact.

Interestingly, unlike numerous other European languages, this is exactly what English sentence-level stress (emphasis) does – it naturally emphasises (stresses) these more important words (termed ‘content words’) more than the other words in the message to make them easier to ‘catch’ for the listener.

So, applying this concept to the message we saw above (stressed words in bold), we now have the following:

Yesterday I had a meeting with a client, where we agreed three main objectives for the writing skills training course

Emphasising the key words, however, is only half the story – it needs to be combined with pausing…

2. Pausing

How does pausing combine with emphasis?

Well, let’s consider our message with the stressed ‘key’ words again:

Yesterday I had a meeting with a client, where we agreed three main objectives for the writing skills training course

   How many pauses would you insert if you were saying it…1? 2? 3? more? Where would you put them?

   Key Concept 2

English naturally uses pauses at least 2 to 3 times more frequently than your mother tongue, with major pauses seperating groups of key words into ‘chunks’ and minor pauses separating the key words within these ‘chunks’.

So our message, correctly combining emphasis and pausing, actually looks like this:

(Key:     // = major pause     / = minor pause)

Yesterday // I had a meeting /with a client // where we agreed / three / main / objectives  // for the writing / skills / training /course

Listen to how this stressed, paused version [1] sounds compared to the same message without these important features [2]:

1 With Stress and Pausing

2 No Stress or Pausing

Which one of these two versions sounds clearer/smoother/more convincing/more confident/more professional [delete as appropriate]?

Which one of these approaches to delivering your messages gives:

(i)  You, the speaker, more time to choose your words as you are speaking?

(ii) Your audience more ‘guidance’ to notice main message(s) and time to process it  – i.e. more easily follow and understand you?

Yes… you’ve guessed it – the stressed and paused version :-)!


So, here’s a quick ‘take away’ summary about emphasis and pausing:

1. English – importantly not only as spoken by native speakers but also by many ‘International English’ speakers – naturally uses emphasis and pausing in a predictable, systematic way

2. Applying these two concepts to your public speaking will make your spoken messages clearer and easier to follow for your audience

3. Pausing  appropriately helps moderates your speed (which nerves often accelerates!), so giving you more time to choose the most suitable language to best express your intended message


Have you found this article useful? Please contact me at if you feel your organisation can benefit from my company’s personalised, cost-effective training services in both Brussels and across the EU area.

You can find out more information about the range of language and communication skills training services I offer by visiting

© David Rose 2011

1 Comment

Filed under 1 Public Speaking and Presentation Skills

One response to “Public Speaking and Presentations (3/3): Emphasis and Pausing

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