Instant Authority in 6 Seconds

Whisper quiet shhh
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Do you know the 3 second rule? The 3 second rule will make you look and feel more powerful in 6 seconds. You can have instant authority for free, and you literally don’t have to do anything.

In my public speaking skills classes, one of my favorite demonstrations is a quick 6 second exercise in which I make one unlucky volunteer very uncomfortable.

The 3 Second Rule

It works 100% of the time. In the middle of a conversation with someone, I suddenly stop talking.

Have you ever had someone ignore you or refuse to answer your question for more than 3 seconds?

After exactly 3 seconds of silence the person on the other end of the conversation feels so uncomfortable that they suddenly open their mouth and start talking randomly over the silence.

It takes just 3 seconds to make someone uncomfortable!

Have you ever had someone hold onto that handshake more than 3 seconds? … Instant discomfort.

Have you ever had someone give a goodbye hug and hold on more than 3 seconds? … Instant intimacy (for good or bad).

Have you ever had someone across the room make steady eye contact for more than 3 seconds?  … Uh oh!

How long does it take you to laugh?
How long does it take you to concede?
How long does it take you to intimidate?

clownsmile3 Seconds.

After 3 seconds, a spontaneous smile instantly transforms into clownish creepiness.

Why? Because according to many, many scientific studies, the human brain is hardwired to experience the world consciously in 3 second windows of “nowness.”

The Science of Now

Here are just a few studies:

  • Your auditory and visual nerves have an “exhaust period” that forces the brain to ask “what is new in the world” every 3 seconds (Radilova, 1990).
  • Subjects were unable to structure metronome beats with accents when the two beats exceeded 3 seconds (Szelag, 1996).
  • Natural sentence structure across culture and language results in utterances of under 3 seconds ( Kowal, 1975, Poppel, 1988, Vollrath, 1992).
  • Working short-term memory must be refreshed every 3 seconds if you don’t want to forget (Peterson 1959). You know how you repeat that phone number in your head over and over every 3 seconds?
  • “Spontaneous intentional acts” that rely on motor behavior (hug, kiss, handshake, touching, scratching, etc) last 3 seconds (Schleidt 1987, Gerstener 1995).

three-706895_960_720If you want to know more about this “emotional moment” in which humans experience the “feeling of nowness” check out the book “Time, Temporality, Now” by Harald Atmanspcher or “Subjective Time” by Valtteri Arstila.

Here’s the point:

It takes you 3 seconds to feel an emotional moment.
It takes you 3 seconds to respond.
3 + 3 = 6.

How to show public speaking anxiety

Knowing the 3 second rule explains the above experiment.

When you’re in the middle of a conversation and the other person doesn’t respond, it takes exactly 3 seconds for your brain to recognize the silence and react.

anxiety2The non-response creates anxiety and your subconscious brain takes over. Since silence creates the awkwardness, your subconscious brains will resolve the uncomfortable feeling by filling the silence with words–any words, even nonsensical words.

On the inside you are trying to resolve discomfort, but what does everybody else see on the outside?

From the outside, its obvious to everyone that you do not know what to say. You will practically ooze anxiety. The feeling of awkwardness becomes palpable in the next 3 seconds.

How to show presentation skills confidence

If an anxious person reacts by filling the silence with meaningless words, what do you think a confident, non-anxious person would do?


A confident person would not be uncomfortable in silence.

Imagine yourself standing on stage in the spotlight. Hundreds of eyes focus on you, but you say nothing. You are in complete control. You are completely relaxed. You are unphased. You break the silence only when you choose to break the silence.

The first 3 seconds of silence establishes nothing. But if you have the confidence to remain composed in silence into the next three seconds, subconscious alarm bells start firing in every observer’s mind.

“Whoa, is that guy composed!”
“Wow, is that woman powerful!”
“Dang, is that kid Cool!”

By the time you hit 6 seconds of silence you are in complete control of the room.

How to implement the technique

Years ago, I noticed that weak, nervous speakers often start talking immediately, even before they have the audience’s attention, often while people are still chatting and calming down.

I also noticed that strong speakers often stood in silence at the front of the room and did not begin speaking until they had undivided attention.

I copied the best speakers and started beginning every speech and every class with myself standing in front of the room in complete silence — even when unconfortable.

I didn’t know why it worked, but it did–
after six seconds of silence, you have complete control.

Now days, I do know why it works, but it doesn’t matter. Nothing has actually changed. I still stand in complete silence in the front of the room for 6 seconds.

If this technique were included in my SpeechDeck presentation skills system, it would by categorized as a method to “Reveal the Messenger” and establish Authority. However, the 3 second rule also explains why pausing is one of the most effective techniques to generate emotion when trying to “Engage the Subconscious.”

Do you want instant authority, instant credibility, instant power, instant confidence, instant attention, or instant respect?

All you have to do is nothing.
Just do it for 3 seconds–twice!

Image source: Katie Tegtmeyer
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I've spent my life studying what makes some communicators great in a sea of mediocrity. When I discovered the science of psychology, I found the answer, and created SpeechDeck, the first principle-centered, color-coded system that gets you more attention, more influence, and better results.

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