Listen to the audio version of this post here.
Maybe you can relate.
It started when the Cubs’ color commentary guy took the night off.
(Don’t worry. You haven’t opened the wrong article or landed on the wrong blog page. It’s me, Catherine, odd as it seems that I’m writing about anything related to sports. Stay with me—you’ll see.)
My friend Cindy Dove and her husband are big Cubs fans. And maybe even bigger fans of broadcaster Jim Deshaies. Because, Cindy says, “He’s good, he’s funny, and he leaves lots of quiet time to simply watch the game.”
The other night, JD wasn’t in the booth.
Play-by-play announcer Jon Sciambi was there as usual. You can’t have a play-by-play guy all alone though. So, Ryne Sandberg and Ryan Dempster joined Sciambi in the booth and talked. And talked and talked and talked … until Cindy and John turned off the sound.
“They were so busy talking amongst themselves that they missed what was going on in the game,” Cindy says. “My ears were tired just hearing them natter on. I simply didn’t care what they were saying and at times spaced out. I just wanted them to shut up.”
It’s not that Cindy wanted “just the facts, Ma’am.” She really enjoys listening to JD’s humor. She loves the color he adds to the game. As she put it, “I simply really missed the quiet space that he brings.”
Ah yes—the quiet space.
Just think of all that we listen to all day long. Presentations that could have—and probably should have—ended sooner. Colleagues yammering in meetings, saying the same thing they’ve said before. And before that. Webinars and conference calls and Zoom meetings.
To say nothing of spouses and kids and TVs blaring at home.
That quiet space, when we can find it, it’s like an oasis, isn’t it?
Cindy’s story reminded me of my radio days.
You know broadcasters will do almost anything to avoid what they call “dead air.” Radio stations literally have alarms that go off if the sound stops. One of the first things a newbie learns is to keep the needle moving, no matter what.
It took me a while to figure out that a pause could be an important part of a news story or a bit with a DJ or a talk show monologue.
It took even longer to be comfortable with those moments of silence, not to reflexively fill them up with “um, uh, like, y’know” or just to race through what I was saying. To keep the needle moving.
Learning to use the power of the pause served me well in radio and continues to now, as I’m speaking in front of audiences in the room or on virtual platforms.
Here’s what I tell my clients.
A pause is the vocal equivalent of white space on a page.
Notice how the spaces between words and sentences and paragraphs help you make sense of what you’re reading. Without them, you’d be looking at a steady stream of letters—you’d have to work to make meaning from them.
When you’re talking, the people listening to you need that same space so they can stay focused on what you’re saying, or at least find their way back if their attention drifts for a moment.
And on the subject of their attention, a strategic pause draws attention to what you want to emphasize. Where you might use bold type, underlining, or italics in writing, that moment of quiet can serve the same purpose vocally. It highlights what comes before and after it.
Pausing conveys confidence too.
Nervous speakers are driven to fill every moment—they give us more information than we need, they repeat themselves, and yes, as Cindy said, they “natter on.”
When you’re at ease with yourself, your audience, and your content, there’s no need to natter.
As I argued to my radio colleagues more than once, “The air is not dead.”
In fact, on the radio, in front of an audience, or at that real-or-virtual conference table…if you’re doing your job well, the air is so alive it’s quivering.
Think about the speaking you do, whatever the context.
How can you bring that quiet space?
How can you make the air quiver?
As always, you can share your thoughts in a comment here.
Catherine this is a really important message. I spend much of my time these days editing zoom recording and podcasts and one of the things I do is remove a lot of uhms, ahs, and confusing repetitions. Sometimes I clip them out and tighten up a phrase but often I just leave a second of silence where the useless connector was and as you said it is amazing to hear how much better the speaker sounds. More confident and coherent. Good public speakers learn how to edit themselves as they go and it begins by slowing down and avoiding the need to dominate the “air.”
This is music to my ears, Reno. I hear podcasts where editors have clearly taken out, well, something, and squished what remains together without leaving that bit of breathing room. So much better to allow that beat of silence that gives us all a little space. And yes, the best speakers are comfortable with the pause.
Very interesting Catherine! I too appreciate some empty space, a slower pace (yours is just right!) and am very annoyed by ums and ahs. As a yoga teacher, I have wondered how much is too much instruction? I strive to be articulate, not too wordy, not too speedy and to sometimes be quiet but that can be difficult, outside the opening breath practice and Savasana. Now I have a new mission – can I be quiet AND make the air quiver??? I love that concept! I understand it in your job, will have to think about how to translate it to mine.
Funny you should bring up yoga, Linda. This is what someone posted on my LinkedIn page:
“I feel this way about yoga classes, Catherine. The major point of yoga is to be present, to be comfortable with yourself in the moment. It’s much easier to do that when you have some quiet beats during poses. Yoga instructors who “natter on” – love that description – and leave no quiet space turn me off.”
I’m pretty sure you can make the air quiver. I’ll look forward to hearing about it!
Great things to think about here- thank you.
Back in my tutoring days, I always told my students that a pause is never as long as they think it is, it’s fine to stop and think before moving forward.
Also, the description of a pause being like white space on a page- I LOVE to read. And the most beautiful books aren’t just a collection of words- they are words arranged beautifully on a page with thoughtful white space.
I’m glad the white space metaphor resonates for you, Rachel. You’re so right about the arrangements of words (and the space!) on a page — it makes such a difference in how we take in the message.
Perfect message! I might steal this for my next communique! I’ll quote you, of course!
I’d be thrilled to make an appearance in your newsletter, Karen!
Such a good point, Catherine. Off the top of my head, I can think of three performers who always used the “pregnant pause” to their advantage. Larry Lujack, Jack Benny, and Johnny Carson just to name a few. To your friend’s point, I like the J.D. and Jon Sciambi combo for the same reason. They’re informative, funny, and know when to let the flow of the game speak for itself.
Yes, I learned a lot, working with Larry, Joe. (You might be interested in what I wrote about that.) As for sports announcers, seems like a lot of them could use more of that ability to let the flow of the game speak for itself.
Completely understand and agree with Cindy’s reaction. There is a difference between noise and sharing information. Unfortunately, coming out of COVID has made people excited to be able to have conversations with almost anybody. Not that it was a whole lot different before COVID, but some social skills did diminish while most people sheltered in place.
It’s a fair point, Tom. Some of us might fall into over-talking because we’re so damn glad to be having actual conversations!
Catherine – I argue for a living. I’ve found that sometimes leaving an open space between your words will give the person you’re talking to a chance to let your words sink in. Perhaps you’ve heard that silence can be deafening? it’s certainly an effective tool in a debate.
It sure is, Dennis. It takes some discipline to hold back, sometimes, and leave that open space. When we can do it, those moments of quiet can be very effective.