Essential Silence

Chris Friend (@chris_friend) teaches first-year writing classes, manages Hybrid Pedagogy, produces the podcast HybridPod, and needs to give his personal website its first facelift in three years. He lives near Tampa, Florida, USA.

flickr photo by Thomas Leuthard http://flickr.com/photos/thomasleuthard/8660104345 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

flickr photo by Thomas Leuthard http://flickr.com/photos/thomasleuthard/8660104345 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

(Audio version by Chris embedded at the end of this post.)

I attended a funeral last month. I wanted to speak, but I couldn’t — not for the lump in my throat or the tears in my eyes or any of the affective, funereal reasons. No, I didn’t speak because of logistics. When the officiant asked for volunteers to step forward and offer their remembrances, she made eye contact with That One Brave Soul who said before-hand that she would talk. Once she was at the podium, the speaker dazzled us by donning a feather boa and a festive costume hat (the deceased loved Halloween). The speaker made us laugh with character descriptions that were just on the truthful side of slanderous. She made us cry with confessions of missed opportunities to share her feelings in time.

Then she stepped down from the podium, and The Silence set in.

We’ve all seen it. We’ve been in rooms that are awkward and pensive, where people are contemplating what, when, and whether to speak. Or we’ve been in rooms where the general noise of chatter inexplicably fades to momentary silence, shattered by shards of tension-releasing self-conscious laughter. Or perhaps we’ve attended a concert where the applause holds off for a moment or two after the final note fades away. That one moment — that pause, that stillness, that calm before the storm — is electric, filled with anticipation, bursting with emotional awareness.

When the funeral service was afflicted by The Silence, the officiant decided to keep things moving. She took the silence as a lack of participation. For many in the audience, it may have been time they needed to build their confidence or their composure. I was waiting for the right moment, and for a couple more ideas to fall into place, before offering my thoughts. But that “right moment” never came; the officiant moved along without me.

And that’s the trouble with group conversations and speech: Timing is everything. The way we build in and work with natural pauses in our thinking and storytelling can help or hinder the audience in profound ways.

Readers can create those pauses whenever they need; they simply stop reading for a moment. One strategically placed finger lets a reader take all the time they want to think, to process, to digest, to respond, to take notes, or do practically anything else before returning to the same spot and resuming the story.

Listeners, though, especially those listening to material being broadcast, don’t have that same ability. Pausing the radio isn’t as simple. And while pausing a podcast is technically simple, it may be difficult — many people listen to podcasts while driving or doing other things that keep their hands busy at the time. Recorded audio is like conversation with an invisible — but very present — audience. We have to keep their needs, their thinking, and their timing in mind. That means adding a pause when the audience needs time to process. Or repeating something if it’s easy to miss on the first go-around. Teachers do this all the time with their live, in-person classes. But authors/composers owe their future audiences the same consideration.

With both text and audio, the pacing of what we say has to be carefully crafted to help the audience process what we’re saying. Marks of punctuation serve critical roles in helping readers understand the flow of our words and ideas, providing stage direction and speed limits for our inner voice to navigate. Working with audio, though, the speaker has almost exclusive control over that navigation, and we cannot forget that responsibility.

Audio is far more intimate than text. The vibrations of our vocal chords shake the air that shakes a microphone. Recreations of that sound through speakers or headphones then shake the air that then shakes listener’s eardrums. As Anne Fernald explained in the “Musical Language” episode of the podcast Radiolab, “sound is kind of touch…at a distance.” The more we talk, the more we share that touch with our audience. But sometimes, we have to slow down, to back off, to give our audience space.

This is something I often struggle with as I create episodes of HybridPod, the podcast extension of Hybrid Pedagogy. (Coincidentally, HybridPod grew from an experiment I conducted during DigiWriMo 2014. But I digress.) When I interview people for the episodes, our conversations follow a natural rhythm, pausing and accelerating as needed. But when I edit the conversations together into a single story, I have to consciously include the right amount of time for where breaths and thoughtful contemplation should go. When I create an audio story, I have to create space for the audience’s reaction. I really have to attend to the timing needs of my future listeners.

Even though I still struggle to create the right pacing, I want to provide a simple example of how quickly silence can draw attention to itself and how effectively it can be used.

In an episode of 99% Invisible (a podcast about design, architecture, and the built world around us), producer Roman Mars helped a reporter describe the structure of CitiCorp Tower, a building that was the centerpiece of the episode. Mars tells about several unexpected features of the building, making it sound like the thing shouldn’t be able to exist. The design sounds magical…or physically impossible, with structural supports in the middle of walls, rather than their corners, and with massive amounts of open air beneath the solid mass of the building. He ends the setup this way:

“It does not look sturdy. But it’s gotta be sturdy. It’s gotta be safe, or they wouldn’t have built it this way…right?”

That momentary pause, that fleeting hesitation — the one I’ve represented with an ellipsis — lasts only a fraction of a second, but it’s enough time for listeners to stop, take notice, and predict that the worried “Right?” is coming. For a show all about design, questioning the safety of a structure is kind of a big deal. (The episode’s title is “Structural Integrity” for that very reason.) That pause allows just enough time for listeners to reach the kinds of conclusions and skepticism and discomfort that the reporters want at that moment in the story. Basically, at just over two minutes in, they wind us up. Then they spend another twenty minutes bringing us back down again.

Things can unfold in the opposite direction, as well. Audio stories can be so personal, so intimate, and so raw that they unavoidably evoke a visceral reaction from listeners.  Uncomfortable or unpleasant stories take an emotional toll on us, and we need time and opportunity to regain our composure.

I recall one episode of Radiolab — a podcast I respect and admire — that included a segment about “yellow rain” containing a deeply unsettling interview in which the interviewee was brought to tears by difficult subject matter and inappropriately callous interviewing practices, and she called off the rest of the conversation. The producers knew her frustration and breakdown were hard to listen to, so they included five full seconds of complete silence after the interview concluded to help listeners recover. Those five seconds of “dead air” — an eternity for audio producers — were an essential means for showing respect to the anguished voices in the show and to give listeners an opportunity to grieve and recover before moving ahead with new ideas. The audience needed that time to process, and any sounds would have shattered the moment.

Silence isn’t only for emotional recovery. As with the flexible, nuanced pacing of everyday conversations, silence in audio recordings serves a variety of purposes. A few that come to mind:

  • Adds suspense
  • Shows discomfort (say, of an interviewee at a pressing question)
  • Provides transition from one thought/segment to the next
  • Emphasizes intensity
  • Encourages others to participate/speak
  • Allows listeners time to process

That last point can be crucial. It’s a gesture of compassion for listeners if the storyteller slows down for a bit. After a particularly intense moment (emotionally or intellectually), a pause allows listeners to finish their thinking about a segment, reach their conclusions, and “gather their thoughts”. Anyone who has helped another person learn something new has seen the importance of a well-timed pause to allow things to “sink in”. As you write/create, remember to allow for those moments in your audience, too. In whatever you’re writing this month, pay a little extra attention to the pacing, the punctuation, or the pauses. What’s not there can at times be even more helpful than what is. Embrace the silence and let it speak for you.

“No word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.” — Mark Twain

We hope you will share your work across the various Digital Writing Month spaces that you inhabit. That could be right here at the Digital Writing Month blog; at your own blog or writing space; on Twitter with the #DigiWriMo hashtag; in the DigiWriMo Google Plus Community; at the DigiWriMo Facebook page; or wherever you find yourself writing digitally.

3 thoughts on “Essential Silence

  1. You raise an interesting and important point, Chris, that oral storytelling has more dimensions than print on a page. It evokes stronger emotions, is more #connected. We can’t really skip over parts, unlike what we can do with a book.

    You also allude to another aspect of oral works that reading and writing teachers may want to take to heart. It actually teaches us puncutation. We learn, as we listen to stories, about commas, periods, exclamation points, ellipses…

  2. This is sort of an aside, but my students and I were reading a news article this week about the Navajo Code Talkers from WW2, and how they used their oral language as a way to get around Japanese code breakers, and the reason it worked is that the language was not a written one, but an oral one. That led to some interesting conversations among my young students about language and storytelling and oral traditions in a print-dominated age and culture. We gain much from being able to write out ideas (like this, leaving you a comment in the moment which you may read later today, next week or next year) but we also lose some intimacy of voice and emotion when we don’t balance the oral language features.
    Intriguing …. does Digital Writing narrow that gap or widen it?
    Kevin

    • Kevin,
      I agree with your thoughts about lack of traditional conversation. I found myself in many conversations over text messages and emails, where it is difficult to gauge someone’s tone or emotion. I feel that although social media and other outlets connect us, we are still very isolated by technology. Alot of people prefer text messaging or email rather a conversation because it is easier to say what you want in a message and can avoid any direct forms of communication. A study was recently done, stating the people who are texters are more prone to not look people in their eyes while having a conversation. Defending the fact that technology is create less personal communication and connecting us in a very different way, then was probably intended.

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