When I ask people on our courses how their presentation went they often say “It didn’t flow.” I ask them to elaborate and they say “I stumbled, I had mind blanks, and I had to start sentences again because they didn’t make sense.”
I then ask the audience how they found the presentation – they often don’t notice the issues which loomed so large for the presenter.
It’s not pleasant to be stumbling your way through a presentation. You’d like to feel that your brain and mouth are perfectly in sync and that words are just flowing effortlessly out of your mouth. That may feel good to you when you’re presenting, but it’s not necessarily good for the audience. Don’t aim to replace your stumbles with a continuous flow.
Think of a continuous flow of water out of a hose. Just as it’s difficult to drink all the water flowing out of a hose – even for a dog, it’s difficult to process a continuous flow of words.
Just as we need gaps to swallow water, we need gaps to process words.
Consider written information. There are phrases, commas, sentences, full-stops, bulleted lists, and paragraphs. They break up the information into discrete chunks. Now imagine a page full of a continuous flow of words. You’d throw up your hands in horror.
For the audience it’s better if the words come in discrete chunks.
Those stumbles, mind blanks and restarts provide the audience with time to process your words. Now I get that it would be better to proactively provide the audience with time to process – rather than it be an incidental consequence of your mistakes.
You can do this by using a technique called chunking (I’ve written about chunking before as a solution for people who are told they speak too fast) . Chunking means talking in a rhythm which has you deliver chunks of words with short silences in between the chunks of words. The key is developing the rhythm of chunking. Here’s a video of Tony Blair chunking:
[Update: This video is no longer working – I’ll find another one to demonstrate chunking as soon as I can.]
Chunking gives your audience time to process and also has major benefits for you:
- It will help you avoid stumbling over your words.
- It will keep your brain and mouth in sync and so prevent mind blanks.
- It will give you time to think so that you don’t start a dead-end sentence.
The distinction between chunking and pausing
Chunking has the end-result of incorporating pauses into your speech. But it’s a very different technique. Deciding to pause is easy, doing it is hard. You have to remember each time that you want to pause. Some people mark up a script to help them remember to pause. That’s really going to help you come across as natural and authentic!
Chunking has you focus on a rhythm that you can easily maintain. Once you’re in that rhythm, the pauses come naturally.
So freeze that continuous flow of water, cut it into chunks, and deliver it one chunk at a time to your audience.