At a former company we used to have a weekly meeting to discuss projects. We’d all go around the table explaining what we were working on. Every week one of the guys, Dan, made me laugh when it was his turn.
Dan worked off-site and would dial into the meeting by phone. When it was Dan’s turn to talk, the organizer would say “Dan?” and Dan would take the longest pause before speaking you’d wonder if he was still on the line. The words “Dan?” would hang there and we’d all be left in suspense. There were moments when the organizer would be on the verge of saying “Dan? Dan, are you there?” before Dan started speaking.
It was a technique that never failed to get our attention and when Dan talked, it was the most unhurried presentation you’d heard in your life. It seemed like he had all the time in the world to consider every possibility. Weirdest thing? Dan was based in New York City, possibly the most impatient place in the world.
I laughed every time Dan pulled this presentation trick. I loved it so much that I incorporated into my own speaking style. Because of his slightly slower cadence, Dan came across as thoughtful and considerate even when he disagreed with you. His words carried more weight because they were at a slightly slower pace. It was not so slow that people thought he was dumb, rather he understood how to sound in control.
This is noteworthy because our culture tends to reward speed. Information travels quickly and it often feels like a race to quickly respond to everything. I once worked at a different company that was notoriously impatient. One of the salesman nearly ran over a pedestrian on his way to work because he was in such a hurry to get to the office. The salespeople were obnoxious, loud and pushy. This didn’t impress me – all of these people were about as respectable as fast-talking used car salesmen.
There is a certain musicality to our communication. I play the drums so I think of things in terms of “the beat.” The beat is the rhythm of a song, it’s what makes you tap your foot or nod your head. It comes at regular intervals and you can count along with it (ie.”1, 2, 3, 4″).
Here’s where it gets interesting – it’s very difficult to hit the beat on the drum exactly. There is no sustain in a snare drum. A snare drum makes a sharp short cracking sound. So timing the beat on a snare is like hitting a moving target with small stone. Most likely you won’t hit it exactly, you’ll either be slightly ahead or slightly behind it.
Some drummers are impatient and play ahead of the beat, they are always a little early. You can feel them pushing it. It’s never fast enough for these guys. In conversation, people who are ahead of the beat will interrupt you or change the subject abruptly.
What I like is Dan’s technique – playing a little behind the beat. I used to think this was being lazy. Now I see it as a sign of strength and confidence. The beat of a song is like the tide. It pushes us along whether we want to go there or not. Drummers who play a little behind are demonstrating their strength in resisting its pull. They are demonstrating patience. It makes them noteworthy, the person who evaluates and takes control over his surroundings.
I recently went to a Smashing Pumpkins concert down at BU. Their old drummer is long gone and he’s been replaced by some 19 year old whiz kid. The new drummer was technically brilliant, some of his drum fills were astounding, but he played so many of them the notes blurred into one long cacophony.
What a difference from the previous drummer, Jimmy Chamberlin. Chamberlin played with the wisdom of a master, he knew that silences speak. When he dropped a big fill, you were going to hear it. There was usually a big period of silence or a steady predictable beat preceding it.
Why do we have such a tendency to rush our speech? I have a theory it is because we are afraid of “the uncomfortable silence.” You know what I’m talking about – it’s those moments when two people have nothing to say to one another. For some reason, this is viewed as “wrong.” Anyone see the movie Pulp Fiction? There’s a scene in there where John Travolta and Uma Thurman are on an awkward date. A full 35 seconds pass in silence and it feels like an eternity. It is physically uncomfortable for the audience.
Uma Thurman breaks the silence by saying, “Don’t you hate that? The uncomfortable silence. Why do we feel the need to yak about nothing to feel comfortable?” It’s a good question. I’d argue we’ve developed such a fear about silences happening that the fear itself is worse than the experience.
Learning to pause means learning to be comfortable with the silences. This is something I only just recently discovered. If silences happen to me now, they aren’t uncomfortable. I take them as the natural rhythm of the conversation, not a big deal. Science has proven that being quiet for a couple minutes won’t kill you.
The truth is silences are useful. They can be used for dramatic effect or they can be used to draw up a thoughtful reply. We’ve all seen in Toastmasters that silence is preferable to hearing someone say “Um” or “Ya know.” What image do you want to convey in your speech – the fast-talking salesman who never pauses or the wise Buddha who gives insight with every word?
So I urge you to be like Dan – be a little slower with your delivery, more thoughtful and patient and get comfortable with the silences.