Why you have more trouble with silence than with chatter


I give a lot of speeches, mostly telling people how to manage Generation Y, and how to manage their careers so that they are not jealous of Generation Y. My charm, I think, is that I don’t prepare a speech. I never know, exactly, what I’ll say when I stand up. It works for me—no one ever says I’m boring.

What they say instead is that I talk fast. When they are being nice, people say, “You’re so east coast” or “You sure have a lot of information.” When they are not being nice, people say, “Penelope lacks polish.”

The lack of polish thing sort of bugs me, so I get a lot of coaching.

The first time I got coaching as a speaker, it was from Lindy Amos, at TAI. She totally changed how I approached speaking. She taught me that it’s not about the information you spew so much as about the connections you make.

I love the crazy things I’ve had to do at TAI. Like, give a sermon as if I were a Southern preacher and give a speech about how much I did not have time to be interrupting my day to give a speech. I have taken the TAI introduction course twice, and really, I’d take it ten more times because I love it so much, but I'd feel like a cheater.

So I take private lessons from Lindy now. And last time I met with her, she told me to pause. I had to pause and ask her to repeat herself, because of course, I was talking so fast when she told me to pause that I could not pause fast enough to hear her.

“What?” I said.

“Pause,” she said.

“I am,” I said. “What did you say?”

And I said this in an annoyed voice, of course, because people who do not pause do not pause because they do not like to pause.

Lindy says that the impact of what I’m saying arrives during the pauses.

She tells me to start talking again, and pause where it feels natural to pause. I do that, thinking I won’t know where to pause, but I'm surprised that I can sort of tell.

Then I realize that I don't pause when I am speechmaking because I’m scared of what will happen in the pause. If I tell a joke with no pause, then people start to laugh, but they can’t really laugh because they are laughing on top of me talking, so they stop themselves laughing. That is not a great way to do a joke, but the alternative—that I pause at the end of a joke so that people have a moment to laugh—seems too risky. If they don’t laugh, I’ll feel so awkward.

The real risk of speaking is in the pause. And not just during joke time.

If I have a big idea, it sounds big when I pause. If it’s stupid, the pause gives someone a chance to really notice how stupid the idea is. But the excitement of hearing a big idea is nice, and people will have more miss it if I don’t pause.

During my own pause, I am horrified by the analogies—how, really, you don’t know how you’re doing with anything until you slow down to listen and notice.

I do a lot of swing dancing. With fast music, you can hide that you have no style. You just do technique to keep up with the music. The best moves come out when the music slows down and you can’t hide behind speed.

The same is true of sex. Right? Bad technique always comes with a fast pace.

And what about the pace of a career? I write all the time about how important it is to pause. A career with a slow, rhythmic, but not-always-constant pace is the best type of career to have. Because we learn about ourselves, and recalibrate our paths when we pause. That month you spend on the sofa, collecting an unemployment check and eating Cheetos between movies. That’s not wasted time. It’s your pause. You are thinking. And the pause is actually what keeps us on course.

What I love about Lindy is that she takes what I know is definitely true and shows me that I’m not living up to that. I am scared to have a pause. I know that’s where the action happens, and I know that the best speakers are the ones who take risks. You would think that I take risks all the time. I mean I go to employee motivation seminars and tell everyone to job hop. But the risk isn’t in one's content. The risk is in the pause, where I can tell how my audience is connecting with the content, or not.

It’s a hard lesson. But this lesson is just like all the times that Lindy has changed my speaking style: I connect better everywhere. Not just in my speeches.

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  1. Vishwajeet Rajwaday
    Vishwajeet Rajwaday says:

    Dear Penelope,

    What a great thought. Pause. EVerywhere around us pauses help give a new meaning and course correct.

    In Indian Classical music, pauses are used so creatively to create interest about what is going to come next.

    Pausing time is what photography essentially creates.

    World economy seeing a pause for a while will bring sanity to this maddening growth and maddening consumption.

    A pause really creates a great learning opportunity, a time to reflect on deeper issues, a time to see the world around us much more deeply, a time to reflect. WOW. What a thought.

    You have inspired me to pen my own thoughts on this on my own blog.

    BTW, I totally agree with pause in career and less job hopping. I have written about this in my last two posts which are about learning stages in a career and career growth.

    I will keep tracing this blog site and add it to my favourites.

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