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The Artful Pause

Scenario A: You are attending a workshop and the facilitator glances passively to the audience, asks for questions; then, after a second or two of silence, moves immediately to the next topic.

Scenario B: You are attending a workshop and the facilitator asks for questions, to which they receive multiple participant responses.


So, what is happening in Scenario A to illicit no response? Possibly a host of things, including timing. In my experience, and with due respect to Scenario A attendees, they quite likely don’t even know if they have a question within the allowable two-second timeframe, let alone have the time to ask it. That’s the reality of our cerebral capacity.

There is a lot going on during the learning process. Learning is not simply depositing knowledge in a memory bank or neatly stacking the library shelves of our minds. There is, instead, this entangled web of synapses firing in multi-directional waves. A sea of information mixing into itself.

Brown, Roediger and McDaniel (2014) talk about the learning process in their book, Make It Stick, explaining the complex mental tasks that occur when we are learning or taking in new information. 

Let’s put on our learner hats.

We just took in some new information.

That recently absorbed new information, now in our short-term memory, is dancing between our ears reconciling with our prior knowledge to consolidate with previous understandings, searching to become part of our long-term memory so we can retrieve it later. While all of those cognitive connections are swirling around in our craniums, the sage on the stage unwittingly interrupts our thoughts by asking whether we, the learners, have questions. Permitting only a second or two to respond is not long enough.

By asking for questions, the presenter has disturbed the thought process. Because of that, learners need time to switch gears. They need time to consider the newly acquired information, identify gaps and to think about whether they actually do have a question. And if they do have a question, they then must formulate said question into a sentence, often taking the time to rehearse the question silently to themselves, and then, for some, gather courage to verbalize it in front of other participants. That whole sequence of events needs more than two seconds to fully execute. And if this occurs in the second language of a participant, if there is a large crowd, if this is in a digital online format during which the enquirer needs time to type in a chat box, that time extends.

People sometimes ask me how much time is enough time for the Artful Pause?

While I haven’t performed scientific studies, I’ve practiced it for years and found that counting to myself for at least seven seconds after asking for questions dramatically increases the number of participant responses. 

Injecting long pauses permits all that cognition and courage to happen.

I’ve also been asked, “What do you do for those seven loooong seconds?”

If you’ve never used the Artful Pause, those seven seconds of silence can be uncomfortable. Practice and mental preparation are key. Do this: imagine 1,000 people looking at you, in person or online, and count slowly to seven. That seven seconds of silence can feel eternal.

What do I do during the Artful Pause?

Actually, as little as possible. I don’t stare at the audience. I don’t talk. I might make small inconsequential gestures, such as taking off my watch, sipping some water, or stepping to the side of the room.

Mostly, though, I try not to distract.

Instead, I patiently wait while Scenario B unfolds.


- Tisha Parker Kemp



Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.


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