When Jon Stewart Paused to Persuade Congress

Lots of people across the country have seen the recent clip of former “Daily Show” superhost Jon Stewart testifying in front of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. He was there to urge reauthorization of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund (VCF), established to provide health care benefits to first responders and others in the community with illnesses stemming from the 2001 terror attack. The fund has been dwindling, and some have begun to see their benefit amounts reduced to keep the fund solvent.

It may be the most publicly viewed testimony to a congressional subcommittee in a long time. And if you want to see a great example of an effective persuasive speech, this is definitely one to watch.

Testimony before congressional committees happens every day and generally doesn’t make news coverage. Most who testify blandly read prepared statements, barely looking up at all. Being a celebrity gets a little publicity, but Stewart’s testimony was shown everywhere! It was almost instantly replayed as “Breaking News” on CNN, led virtually every evening newscast, and remained prominently featured in the national news cycle for the next few days.

Why did Stewart get so much attention? Because he gave a passionate, emotional, nine-minute speech, using no notes. Laura Hollis of Townhallcalled it “the monologue of his life,” and wrote that his comments were delivered “with the kind of clarity and brutal honesty that we are not accustomed to hearing addressed directly to members of Congress.”

And how did Stewart punctuate that clarity and brutal honesty? With pauses. Long pauses. More than 100 of them in just nine minutes.

Stewart used many speaking techniques well—changes in volume, repetition of terms, short and quick sentences, and GREAT eye contact—but the pauses were what made this persuasive speech so effective.

Here’s a short passage from his testimony. Note the effective repetition as well as the pauses:

“The official FDNY response time to 9/11 was five seconds. (LONG PAUSE). Five seconds! (VERY LONG PAUSE) That’s how long it took for (all of the first responders) to respond —to an urgent —need —from the public. Five seconds. (LONG PAUSE).”

Certainly, seeing Jon Stewart speaking out in a different type of forum makes the news interesting. And Stewart displayed a level of emotion during his testimony that few had seen from him—or most anyone— in that situation. But his PAUSES—those long, silent moments throughout his comments—were what turned his speech into a must-see news item.

If you have to deliver any kind of persuasive message, be sure to watch and learn from Stewart’s approach. Not only did he pause often, but he used a variety of them—short ones (2-3 seconds), long ones (more than five seconds) and very long ones (10 seconds +).

Pauses deliver a powerful message without a sound. Here are some of the things Stewart told his audience with all those pauses:

  • Did you hear that? I just said something that needs to sink in.
  • Listen up! What I’m about to sayis really significant. Pay attention.
  • I’m angry! Maybe even furious. This situation is unacceptable.
  • This is important. I’m taking a few seconds to make sure I say it the right way.
  • I feel strongly about this. This moment is so (emotional, intense, proud, exciting, scary, or insert your favorite adjective here) for me that I need to compose myself.
  • Do something! Get up off your butts! You need to take action NOW!

You can watch his testimony here if you haven’t seen it yet. If you’re short on time, here are a few excerpts from the final moments of his speech. We’ve tried to emphasize his pauses.

In responding to some who said that New York should be funding the benefits instead of the U.S., Stewart said: “Al Qaeda didn’t shout “Death to Tribeca.” (LONG PAUSE) They attacked America!” (VERY LONG PAUSE)

He continued:

“These men and women, and their response here, is what brought —our —country —back. (PAUSE) It’s what gave our reeling nation a solid foundation to stand back upon, to remind us of why this country is great, of why this country is worth fighting for (short pause) and you— are— IGNORING THEM! (VERY LONG PAUSE). You can end this tomorrow.”

Then he closed with a powerful call to action:

“They responded (PAUSE) in five seconds. They did their jobs —with courage, grace (PAUSE) tenacity, humility. Eighteen years later, DO YOURS! (LONG PAUSE) Thank you.”

Think he was effective? Beyond all the attention he raised for the cause, we noticed that the entire House Judiciary Committee unanimously voted the next day to extend funding for the VCF. Not bad for a comedian.

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