The power of the pause

We tend to think of the pause as awkward. In speech, pregnant pauses connote uncomfortable silence; we veil silence with fillers. As professional communicators, we’re trained to deliver smooth speech, censoring out “um” and “ah.” This distaste for the pause — and the inverse, seeking an always-on state — is a battle we face at work, at school, and in industry at large.

I propose that we’re too impatient with the pause, and as a result, we’re missing out on a great deal. What would happen if, as communicators and designers, we became more comfortable with the pause? Because it turns out we can add by leaving out. The pause has power.

The presence of pauses

The oldest recording of American umming comes from Thomas Edison, who in 1888 presented the perfected phonograph when he recorded and played back his voice. The transcript contains verbal pauses: “And then to, uh, Bombay,” and his sign-off, “Uh, goodbye, Edison.” The relay of this first conversation was, in fact, demonstrating what is natural — the pause. Why edit it out? The verbal filler even has historical power.

See also:
Breaking Down the, Uh, Blunders of Speech from Michael Erard

Stammers are not uncommon. The average English speaker makes as many as seven to 22 “ums” and “ahs” per day. Because we have a tendency to want to hold the floor as communicators, we’ll use a number of fillers — “ums” and stammers — to avoid pauses in conversation. These sounds, in fact, deny an audience the chance to process what’s been said.

Pauses in the wild

Discourse is not the only space where the presence of pauses is powerful. In public space, pauses in the urban landscape can be important characters, contributing to new meaning. Walter Benjamin reminds us “architecture is experienced habitually in the state of distraction.” So when a structure that’s always been present on your daily walk suddenly becomes an empty lot, your definition of space and flow changes — there is a pause. And the surrounding environment takes a new form. Like a pause in discourse, a pause in the urban landscape lends meaning to its surroundings, creating opportunity for new value to emerge. Negative or non-spaces formed by the creation of others play an important role in creating passive by-products. There is presence in absence.

See also:
An active silence, thoughtful takes time

The value of pause need not be so intangible; its use in retail as an orientation and transition device can ground customers. In Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, Paco Underhill demonstrated why “landing strips” — the transition zones inside of retail environments — were invaluable in getting customers to pause. Referring to customers entering retail environments, he noted:

These people are not truly in the store yet. You can see them, but it’ll be a few seconds more before they’re actually here. If you watch long enough, you’ll be able to predict where shoppers slow down to make the transition from being outside to being inside.

The transition zones were blind spots; knowing that, retailers could plan appropriately, allowing for a pause before the commerce experience began.

Pauses abound

Each of these instances adds meaning to the surrounding content, giving momentum to what comes afterward. Joshua Porter might refer to the stages before and after the pause as phases in a service usage lifecycle:

  • Unaware: Most people are in this stage, completely unaware of your product.
  • Interested: These people are interested in your product but are not yet users.
  • First-time Use: These people are using your software for the first time, a crucial moment in their progression.
  • Regular Use: These people are those who use your software regularly and perhaps pay for the privilege.
  • Passionate Use: These people are the ultimate goal: passionate users who spread their passion and build a community around your software.

The hurdle between “unaware” and “interested” may be considered a pause, as it’s the designer’s goal at this stage to make people aware of a product or service (e.g., getting people over the sign-up stage in Web-based software).

Beyond practice

The value of the pause doesn’t stop with practice; it refers to the way we interact with our environment. Interactions, both public and private, can be enhanced by a bit of a pause:

  • Intermission
  • The drumroll
  • The halftime show
  • The landing strip
  • The pause button
  • The semicolon
  • The window
  • Interstitial ads
  • Syncopated beats
  • Hadrian’s Villa
  • A moment of silence

If we start considering the pauses all around us, both designed and unplanned, we begin to see the patterns, in that they both increase meaning and enforce attention.

Add by leaving out

Designers seek to contribute through meaningful additions. Great contributions, it’s often thought, are meant to be seen and heard, rather than not. Yet what if designers were more comfortable with the presence of absence? It’s through pause that value is sometimes found. In a culture where we’re racing to fill each moment with content and connectivity, we might consider what we can leave behind.

And instead of racing forward, we pause for a moment.

Article written as part of column for Interactions Magazine ©ACM. This is an abbreviated version of the work and my version of it. It is posted here with permission by ACM. Full version in issue: XVII.4 – September / October, 2010 » Adding By Leaving Out: The Power of the Pause