Clear Comm Consulting

Pacing, Pausing and Johnny Carson

Apr 30, 2015

There were two reporters allowed to see the behind-the-scenes world at the Tonight Show studios in Burbank, CA, on the last day Johnny Carson showed up for work in May of 1992.

I was one of them. It was the luckiest day of my work life.

Johnny Carson ruled late-night television from the mid-1960’s through the 1980’s. Look it up. He was one of my idols growing up. In 1992 Carson was ready to step down. It was the end of an era in TV.

So what does this have to do with a Monthly Memo? Well, Carson was one of the best at pacing and pauses – setting up the speed of his delivery to get maximum effect. That is something any of us can utilize when delivering an important message and it just takes some thought and preparation.

First, let’s say you’re getting ready to deliver an important talk of some kind. When you practice (and you DO practice, don’t you?) look for maybe two times where you can purposely pause. Now, you’re not looking for a big laugh like Carson, you just want people to stay engaged. (If nothing else a few audience members will take a moment to look up from their phones! It’s tough keeping people’s attention these days.)

When do you pause?
Here are some excellent spots: When you’re about to make a major point, of course, but also when you are getting ready to wrap up or when you are shifting to a new point. Also, how about after offering something they weren’t expecting or when you’ve introduced a new or especially complicated idea? Let it soak in. Carson was famous for getting a laugh for the joke – then pausing and getting a second laugh just by staying quiet and letting them think about it. He made you feel like you were on the inside – getting the inside joke.

Too often we are too focused on spitting out the points – sometimes racing along out of nervousness or through lack of confidence. A confident speaker takes her time, letting the points settle with the listener.

What about pacing?
If you are searching for a way to get people to lean in when you’re speaking, look at changing your pace. Especially when you slow down, listeners will pay attention because the words carry more weight when you shift to a slower speed. And what if you are re-counting the obvious? Pick up the pace and everyone will know you are covering ground because you have to, but it’s not the big, important stuff!

Pauses and pacing – two simple tools, available to us all, and perfected by the late Mr. Carson. Don’t forget the classic lessons – they just keep paying dividends. And here’s the real proof. Carson borrowed the idea from the previous generation. Comedian Jack Benny was the king of the comedic pause and when you watch clips of the two you can see the lesson carried through time. Are you ready to keep it going?

Watch for more on my Johnny Carson experience and this topic. A longer version can be found in my new book, which will be available this fall.
Stay tuned!


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Cary Pfeffer is the founder of ClearComm Consulting,, a Scottsdale, AZ communications consulting firm that helps people tell their story. He works with clients to make the most of their media and live audience communication. Email him at: [email protected].

Cary Pfeffer is the founder of ClearComm Consulting,, a Phoenix, AZ-based communications consulting firm which is helping people tell their story. He works with clients to make the most of their media and live audience communication. Email him at: [email protected]

Follow along with Cary on Twitter @CaryPfeffer

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