Intentional silence or dead air?

May 20 2013 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

It's a common complaint when presenting or leading a meeting online that not enough people participate or contribute even when asked for their input. Meanwhile, participants often feel that

presenters speak too quickly and overwhelm their listeners.

What these two issues have in common is that they can be traced back to the meeting leader being uncomfortable with silence. Basically, they can't tell the difference between silence and the dreaded "dead air".

Dead air is that uncomfortable silence when it's obvious the presenter has lost their place, or a question is asked and there's no one filling in the gap in conversation. You can almost hear people squirm. Silence, on the other hand, is intentional and allows a lot of good things to happen. Dead air should be avoided as much as possible. Intentional silence, though, needs to be appreciated and part of your planning and facilitating tool-kit.

Dead air echoes in the presenter's mind, and often adds to the panic they feel, which makes them even less confident; it's a vicious cycle of negative energy. Your audience can almost hear the flop sweat hitting the keyboard, and it reflects negatively on the presenter. Credibility can take a real hit.

Intentional silence, though, offers a lot of benefits to both the audience and the speaker. First of all, it creates a chance for the presenter to actually stop and take a breath. Without the visual cues from the audience to pace us, we often have a tendency to speak faster and faster, like a snowball rolling down hill and picking up speed.

Intentional silence also gives the audience time physically to participate more fully. It actually takes time to process what's been said, formulate a question, check that no one else is speaking and unmute your phone, all before you can speak at all. Most presenters are so afraid of the silence they don't give the audience sufficient time to respond. After a while, "any questions?" starts to sound like it's rhetorical. If you aren't going to give them a realistic chance to respond, why bother?

Silence makes people uncomfortable, and you can always use that to your advantage as a speaker or meeting leader. When nothing is being said, someone will jump in just to break the tension. That's why negotiators often believe that the first person to speak when an offer is made is the loser. Generally speaking, when training or leading brainstorms, if you let the question hang there long enough, someone will speak up. We just aren't any more comfortable with the silence than our audience is.

The key difference between awkward and intentional quiet is the word, "intentional". When silence is created in the right place and for the right reason, it can be a powerful tool. It adds weight to whatever has come before it: the audience actually has a chance to think about what you've just said. It can move people to action, so plan in advance the best places for discussion or where questions might lurk.

It takes two things to create effective silence. The first is the courage to let the silence hang there. A good rule of thumb (totally unscientific, but it works) is that the silence feels about twice as long to the presenter as it does to the audience. Rather than go by feel, try counting silently to yourself for five beats. If there's no response, rephrase the question and ask it again, or move on. Sometimes silence really does mean agreement.

The second thing it takes is planning. When you're in the middle of a presentation or meeting your brain is telling you to finish up and get out of there. You often miss obvious places to pause, or where questions might lurk. Identify those places in the discussion or presentation and make a note to yourself to stop, pursue input or just take a breath.

Yes, reminding yourself to breathe seems silly, but it's amazing how many presentation problems stem from just plain running out of steam.

The point is, silence by itself isn't deadly (in fact, no human has ever died from awkward silence, although a few may have wished for it). The trick is to use it to your advantage, and use it on purpose instead of having it just happen by accident.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.