A captivating, powerful speech is made.
A stillness follows; a collective pause as the audience processes what has just happened.
As the speaker walks off the stage, you hear it, clear as a bell:
A single clap.
And another. And another, growing in intensity and speed.
Soon two people join in the clapping, then four more. Now the entire audience has joined, the volume growing to a roar.
Not a dry eye is left, everyone sharing in the profoundness of the moment.
This phenomenon is called the Slow Clap.
Don’t let the unassuming name throw you off. The slow clap is a powerful device that can bring the strongest men to tears if done properly.
What is a Slow Clap?
The slow clap is a clap that starts slowly and gradually, building in tempo and intensity. Usually, one person starts the clapping, with others joining in until the clapping gives way to roaring applause. More often than not this type of applause can end in a standing ovation.
The slow clap is an iconic, dramatic device that has been used often in popular culture. It is often used when someone makes a notable speech, or a touching moment occurs. (We’ll see more examples from movies and popular culture in a bit.)
The slow clap can also be used ironically or sarcastically, adding instant humor to nearly any situation.
There is no limiting the slow clap’s uses. It can be utilized at sporting events, dinner parties, movie theaters, even bobsled races.
The History of the Slow Clap
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the slow clap began. According to Google Trends the “slow clap” term didn’t really gain steam in popular culture until 2007.
Roger Ebert referenced the “Slow Clap Scene” in a review of Against the Ropes in 2004, and that might be the earliest reference to the term from a film perspective.
It’s not that the slow clap device didn’t exist until then, it just didn’t have the “slow clap” moniker that we currently use.
Slow Clap In the Movies:
You know the Slow Clap Scene, where the key character walks into the room and it falls silent? And everybody is alert and tense and waiting to see what will happen? And then one person slowly starts to clap, and then two, three, four, and then suddenly the tension breaks and everyone is clapping, even the sourpuss hold-outs? Can we agree that this scene is an ancient cliche? We can. And yet occasionally I am amazed when it works all the same.
The movies may have started the popularity of this gradual type of applause. It’s perfect for the silver screen due to the fact that, in reality, it’s hard to pull off a successful slow clap.
The timing and situation all have to be perfect. (More on that in a bit.)
Movies are ripe with examples of “The Slow Clap Scene” that Ebert references above. In fact, some kindly gents put together a collection of scenes that have utilized the slow clap over the years.
Here’s a little-known fact: Heath Ledger went off script and inserted a slow clap that many believe is one of the most powerful moments in the movie The Dark Knight.
It takes a leap of faith to initiate the slow clap. (What if everyone else doesn’t join in?) But there is tremendous upside to executing a successful slow clap.
Let’s find out how to pull one off.
How To Pull Off the Slow Clap
There is a subtle art form to the slow clap, and mastering the practice takes precision and expert know-how.
Let’s walk through the components of a successful slow clap.
For starters, knowing when to initiate the slow clap is crucial. You can’t just stand up and start clapping loudly and slowly at just anything. Unless you’re using the slow clap as a humorous device, you’ll need to be judicious in how often you try this specific type of applause.
Once you’ve determined that, yes, it’s time to do a slow clap, here are the mechanics:
Step 1: Start clapping, but not in a normal fashion. Instead, exaggerate the clap. Spread your arms wide, and clap loudly. Take a wide stance, to get the full force of each clap.
Clap excruciatingly slow to start. In the above examples, you’ll see that there can be as many as 3-4 seconds between the first few claps.
Step 2: Gradually increase the tempo and intensity of the applause. The speed is dictated by the feel of the situation. (More on this below.)
Step 3: If others join in (or possibly even before), stand up if you’re not already standing.
Step 4: Encourage others to start clapping with you by nudging your neighbors and making eye contact with those near you. Use your eyes to convey that they should be clapping too. (If everyone has joined in with you, this step is no longer necessary.)
While these are the base mechanics of a slow clap, you’ll need to vary the execution a bit, depending on the circumstance.
For emotional effect
If you’re using it in a powerful situation, (like the end of a heartfelt speech), you’ll need to wait a bit. You’ll notice that in most movies that uses the slow clap for dramatic effect, there’s a slight pause before someone initiates it.
Rudy has a great scene that shows the emotional, slow-growing clap.
Also, you’ll want to build it slowly. Let the emotion simmer until it bubbles over when everyone has joined in the clapping.
A quick note: There can be a real danger of nobody joining in, leaving you as a solitary clapper. It happens to the best of us.
If you’re wanting to add irony or humor to a situation, start the clap as soon as possible and with a bit more gusto to hint that the applause is exaggerated. Embellish your movements to add even more humor to the situation.
A classic example of this exaggerated applause exists in a scene from Dumb and Dumber:
Unlike using the clap for dramatic effect or humor, using the slow clap for sarcasm is relatively easy. Simply give a wry smile, and start clapping slowly, in a mocking manner.
Let’s examine James Van Der Beek’s sarcastic slow clap below:
Note how he cocks his head to the side with a sour expression, hands clapping slowly, highly, and in front of his face. Impeccable.
Mary Poppins surprisingly pulls off an excellent sarcastic slow clap but instead uses a slight smile mixed with an underlying sweetness to make the clap less pointed.
Perfecting your own slow clap may take some time. Refer to these examples as a guidebook while you practice.