Lawyers are known for their gift of the gab and their gift often results in some good courtroom drama. I dearly remember the first time I saw an excellent example of this in the movie “A Few Good Men”. I immediately fell in love with this classic, especially its final scene. In this final scene Lieutenant and rookie lawyer Daniel Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise) are cross-examining the Guantanamo Bay base commander Colonel Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson), defending two lower ranking marines who are accused of murdering a fellow officer. With a cleverly timed sequence of questions, Kaffee is leading Jessep right where he is reluctant to go. It is one of the most powerful climax scenes from Hollywood and it is used so many times in various movies and series as a reference point.
Want to know how Kaffee did this? Can you handle the truth?
“A Few Good Men” basically is a movie about life at the US Navy and one would associate a dramatic fight or action at the zenith of the climax. However, this movie managed to create the same level of excitement just by… dialogues. All the fireworks are in the courtroom conversation between the lead protagonist and the antagonist. This got me into thinking. What makes this conversation so powerful and so engaging? The answer is: its pauses.
After a chain of seemingly innocent and irrelevant questions, like “are your orders always followed” and “is it true what you wrote down in your report”(questions a high placed marine cannot answer but with yes), there came a moment in which no language was exchanged. This moment prepared us as an audience, along with the judge and the jury, for the climax to the vital conclusion. Just when we thought that Lieutenant Kaffee was about to draw, he looks at Colonel Jessep and starts “I have just one more question…”
“If you gave an order that Santigo was not to be touched and your orders are always followed, then why would Santiago be in great danger?”
Drop dead silence in the courtroom. “Colonel”. Spoken in a soft yet carrying voice, this ultimate question made the Colonel so uncomfortable and aggressive that he finally broke down and revealed his vulnerability. Now let us imagine all the words in that one sentence Kaffee spoke, but without the so well executed pauses. What would have been the impact? Would the scene have been just as intense? Far less. The meandering delivery of his lines and his pauses made that one final question the most important question of the whole dialogue. The question that stopped Colonel Jessep from beating around the bush and made him confess to his crimes at last.
Kaffee’s pauses, even more than his words, made the Colonel break. Pauses are those secret weapons that can add so much to one’s speech. Timely pauses build intensity and give your speeches the power and punch you need. A pause breaks the rhythm and monotony and gives your audience the thrill of suspense. Deliberate strong eye contact combined with your pauses can create an even more memorable moment and add immense impact to the following lines of your speech. The pause grabs the attention and paves the way for the killer punch lines.
This explain the following dialogues from the Cornel “Do you want the truth, can you handle the truth” became such a cult.
So next time you are speaking or presenting, make sure you pause create intensity and then deliver your killer punch. Utter every article and word with intensity, pause, look into your audience’s eyes and create that powerful moment. Can you handle the pause?