When I was in the third grade, I participated in a competition where the student who demonstrated the best handwriting would have the honor of writing our class letter to the Governor. This was a really big deal for me as an eight year old. I wanted to win! I knew I had really good penmanship, and only one other student even came close to my handwriting skills.
Before the teacher announced the winner she said, “Eileen would have won, but she forgot to indent for each paragraph. So the winner is Jeanie”. While my handwriting was preferred, I hadn’t paid attention to the rules of spacing, and so I lost the competition. I remember this incident so clearly, and perhaps it had such an effect on me that, decades later, I speak and write about the importance of “white space”.
Think about what it would be like if we had to read text that filled the whole page. It would be overwhelming and a challenge to comprehension. From our earliest years, we were taught to respect and incorporate space when we write: margins at the top, bottom and sides of the page, space between words, space after punctuation, indentation or double-space to start a new paragraph and signal a new idea.
Speaking also requires space to complement and support the spoken word. What creates the space that enhances oral communication? Silence, breath and pause, or what I call “verbal white space”. Unlike writing, speaking was not taught in the primary grades. There were no guidelines for creating space when speaking. Maybe that’s one of the reasons many people are afraid to speak in public; and why they are even more uncomfortable with silence.
In my thirty years as a professional speech coach, I have observed only a few professional speakers who regularly integrate silence and pause when speaking in public. Most speakers, whether they are business presenters, interviewers, interviewees, trainers or sales representatives seem oblivious to “oral margins”. Yet these “invisible” breaks between thoughts actually support their message and, even more important, enhance their audience’s ability to listen and comprehend.
Silence, pause and breath have huge benefits for both speakers and listeners:
• Starting a speech or presentation from silence allows speakers to settle in, scan their inner state, notice and adjust their breathing and manage nervousness.
• A speaker who starts a presentation from silence communicates confidence and that they are comfortably in control.
• Silence allows speakers the opportunity to observe the impact of their message. They can more easily assess their audience’s understanding, mood or behavior and make necessary adjustments to influence them. By observation, the speaker obtains valuable information that supports communication success.
• Intermittent silence (shifting from sound to no sound) promotes listening. Since listeners generally do not anticipate this change, it becomes a signal to pay attention.
• Pausing influences listener engagement. Placing speech on hold for even a nano-second creates interest and impact for the listener. It allows the speaker to sense the energy of the room and create a palpable connection with the audience.
• Silence before a key word or phrase makes that element stand out as significant and memorable.
• Verbal white space allows listeners the necessary time to process information. Too much information without pause creates listener overload. When listeners become fatigued, energetically drained and cognitively depleted, their comprehension weakens or shuts down altogether.
Creating space helps readers and listeners focus on the printed or spoken message. It enhances reader and audience attention, comprehension and retention. It supports the speaker’s voice, both written and spoken.
So, why is there such an imbalance between speaking and silence? Is it because speaking was not taught in school? Because silence is invisible, and what cannot be seen is less-valued? Or because speaking up is rewarded over being silent? Whatever the reason, it’s time to recognize the significance of “verbal white space” as a critical factor to speaking effectively.
There are ongoing opportunities to engage with Eileen’s programs for Speaking that Connects. Please see our Communications Programs for your individual needs!