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.

Author, Audience and Parts of Speech

by Sherri Spelic (@edifiedlistener) Educator, Coach and Facilitator at home on the edge of the Alps in Vienna, Austria. I blog at https://edifiedlistener.wordpress.com/ and teach elementary physical education at a PK-12 international school by day. (Sherri’s #AltCV)


flickr photo Captive Audience shared by Singing With Light under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

For much of October I have been mentally wringing my hands over exactly how I want to contribute to Digital Writing Month, especially as a featured contributor. I gladly accepted the invitation to be a part and was flattered to be included among a fascinating cross section of participating contributors. And I kept asking myself – what do I have to share? What’s my angle? What’s important to me? What matters? And going a level deeper – what’s at stake?

Let me start here. I write regularly in public online spaces. I blog, I tweet, I comment. In fact, if I google my name, I get 4 pages worth of results which refer almost exclusively to one of those acts. So foremost in the digital warehouse of frequently accessed data points related to my name, writing pops up as if it were all that I do. So if Google’s main clues suggest “Sherri Spelic writes,” then that must make it so, right? Hmmm…

I realized only very recently that I want to talk about audience here. Because when I write, even when I say I don’t think much about who is going to read whatever I put out there, of course that’s a lie. I often consider for whom my words are intended. I care about reaching certain individuals and groups with my message. This thinking shapes, too, where I choose to publish – on my own blog or on a public platform like Medium.

Digital writing – in my understanding, the act of creating texts or other products through digital tools which are designed to be shared with readers via digital means- diverges significantly from the private hand-written journaling I did for years. From my laptop and occasionally from my tablet I draft texts which I primarily publish immediately. And when I say publish it means that I post it on my blog which triggers a least two separate tweets and sends out about 100 e-mails to subscribers of my blog. If I choose to publish on Medium I can either submit it for review to the editors of a specific publication (like Synapse) or I can post it independently. In both cases, these texts are out there for anyone and everyone with reasonably free internet access to see, read, and also ignore.

But here’s the thing: that “out there” business can be misleading. Just because anyone could find my beautifully crafted reflection on ‘the joy of whatever’ does not mean that many, or necessarily anyone will. We kind of assume that because the user base of the internet is so vast, diverse and active, that we who brave the waters of such relentlessly fast-paced media will be showered with attention from all angles, positive and negative. When we write our provocatively snarky think-piece on ‘the rise and fall of you-know-what-I’m-talking-about’, we can be so convinced that the masses will jump up, click and re-click their immediate approval and even the trolls will come marching into our comment stream to illustrate the vital nerve that we have touched. That, however, is so rarely how this digital writing thing actually unfolds, at least in my corner of the internet.

Here’s where I think we can fall into a trap. We want audience. We want readers. We’d like to win over subscribers. We want to feel useful and appreciated and worthy and maybe even important. And audience seems like a way to get there. How many subscribers to your blog before you can call your writing endeavor a success? What’s the critical mass of Twitter followers required to be considered a “thought leader”? How do you get to be listed as a LinkedIn Influencer when you post an article?

Because in digital media we like to let numbers and metrics tell the story – the story of reach, of clicks, of views, visits and referrals. These metrics are then readily folded into narratives about popularity, trends, importance, because in the economy of attention, these things matter. These metrics tell us many things but they fail to tell us as writers and as people enough of what we really need to know: Whom did I reach? What was it that resonated? Where was I misconstrued? Then, going a little deeper: What is in this piece for me? What lessons do I want to keep for myself? What would I do well to let go of right now?

The information that we most often crave about audience reaches us typically through other avenues, if at all: through comments, tweets and retweets, shares across different platforms. And so much of all that will remain unknown. And in digital writing as in other forms expression we need to be okay with that.

So how do we find audience, after all?

If we want audience, then we must first and foremost be audience. We need to read widely and astutely. We need to pause as we read the work of others – and become permeable. Being an audience means letting others into our worlds, leaving space for the sparring and dancing of  ideas. Being an audience means listening – dropping defenses, setting aside our emotional reactivity for a moment. When we do these things, we become an audience of value and increase the likelihood of helpful and constructive interaction. We acknowledge a response within and perhaps also ‘out there’, privately or publicly.  

For me, this slow and steady acculturation of being audience while growing audience has afforded me the opportunity to mature into this writing practice at my own pace. In fact when I examine the bulk of my digital work, I quite simply would characterize it as “writing back.” So much of what I write emerges as necessary and somehow urgent responses – to something I read, saw, experienced, heard. I write back to authors. I write back to my students. I write back to my professional/personal learning network (PLN). I also write back to myself.

When I’m not writing I do many other things: I teach, I coach, I parent, I facilitate, I move, I read, I lead, I follow. And by now these aspects flow freely into my writing. The immediacy of the digital – the risk and opportunity of exposure coupled with the potential speed of engagement and response -for me, this underscores the imperative of being the audience I want to have. Remaining focused on the distinctly human dimensions of our lightning fast communication channels stands at the core of what, why and how I choose to create.

It may seem that we are all born under the sign of algorithms’ ascendency and that the astrology of our common future may be reduced to a handful of branded provider platforms.  Yet it is and will continue to be our choice to uphold and broaden the reach, impact and benefit of the irreplaceably human in each of us whether we are reading, writing, listening, speaking. We need to think about our offer as both/and instead of either/or. Writer and listener. Reader and speaker. Being the audience that makes positive waves requires more from us as writers, educators, activists and contributors and also serves to regularly remind us of what we are in fact here for.

What matters to me in contributing to this year’s digital writing month? Supporting audience in all its forms and iterations; making audience a 30-day verb.