Are you the kind of person who loves to listen? Who’s interested in other people’s stories? You enjoy hearing the emotions and the story-beats and the details of other people’s experiences? You find joy in observing people when they’re talking about something they care about?
I have great news for you: good listeners make great speakers.
Listening is a superpower that allows you to learn more, connect on a deeper level, and catch things that other people might miss.
I want to explore using silence as a technique in your presentations – a lesson that came to me in the middle of a Moth storytelling performance in front of 1,000 people.
I’ve told a number stories for The Moth. I didn’t know it at the time, but one of those stories in particular would really help bolster my career. I told a story at a sold-out show at the Flynn Theatre in Burlington, Vermont.
To summarize the story: it’s first day of middle school, the first time the approval of my peers matters more the approval of my parents, and I accidentally out some of the more embarrassing details of extremely religious upbringing in a very public way.
Quite in opposition to my desperate need to blend in.
The first time I told this story, I commented to someone after the show my surprise at how much people like a story that was so specific to my experience. And I remember that person said, “Colin, we were all 11.”
It’s a wonderful thing to remember that the details of our experiences may be unique, but the themes that they call to mind are universal. Your journey to reading these words took you on a different path than I took, but at some point on that path, you were also 11.
The story actually won the event. And I had gotten to know one of The Moth’s head producers during the prep for the show, and she really resonated with my story. She would later shepherd it along into being play on the Moth Radio Hour, after which I got tweets from all over the world from people who appreciated the story’s heart and honesty. The next summer she recommended it to Reader’s Digest for a joint project they were working on. A few months after that my story, Saved By The Belle, appeared in Reader’s Digest, in a collection called “Best Stories In America.”
Now, I would respectfully disagree that this was one of the best stories in America. But I was very flattered to be part of that. Especially because I’d read the publication a lot in childhood. Drama in Real Life, because I loved stories. And Humor in Uniform, because I loved humor. And now there I was, with my very own pencil-sketched profile. Any way you slice it, it was and continues to be an incredible experience I’m grateful for.
Back to the event, where I DIDN’T KNOW ANY OF THE ABOVE WAS GOING TO HAPPEN.
I had the opportunity to perform my story for a very large crowd, in a beautiful theatre, amidst a roster of talented storytellers and a celebrity host. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure to do well.
Put another way, there’s a tremendous amount of pressure not to mess it up.
You have six minutes to tell your story. That’s not a lot of time. An extra-long laugh or a stumble could put you over time, and you’ll lose points and potentially interrupt the flow of the show.
You’re speaking in front of 1000 people, so it’s black-box theater lighting. The audience is completely dark, just a faceless energy out there somewhere. You’re standing in the middle of a 100 feet wide stage, and staring into blinding spotlights, and pretending you’ve done this before.
I launch into my story, and soon enough I’m in the rhythm of it. I’ve crafted every word, memorized every line and practiced it over and over again. Two thirds of the way through, my mind goes completely blank.
I don’t know what comes next. I finish the remaining words of the line I’m on and then I just go quiet. I rack my brain for something, anything. But all I can think is “I lost.”
And then another eternal moment passes, and I think, “I have to break out of the story and address the audience. I have to admit that I’m lost. I have to admit that I’ve failed.”
I hold a frozen smile – a baldfaced lie meant to communicate that I’m fine and this is all going according to plan. Which was definitely not the truth.
Before I melted into a puddle of shame and flopsweat on the floor, I tried restating a different version of the last line. Buying time. And within a few words I saw a faint glimmer of what was supposed to come next, and I recovered. They must have been able to hear my voice quaver and my heart pound.
I kept going all the way to the end and the story ended up coming together quite nicely. The audience seemed to really connect with it. Even though there was a moment where I nearly ruined the whole thing.
After the event, someone came up to me and said, “I loved your story.”
This is most important only reason that I tell stories. In the hopes of connecting with someone else, in their life, in a meaningful way. And it was clear on this woman’s face I’d done that.
She added, “Before I go, I have to tell you that the moment where you paused, and waited to continue because you were so caught up in the emotion of the story… that moment was honestly my favorite part of your story.”
And I bit back all the things I wanted to say, and instead I said, “Thank you so much.” Because she has a right to her own interpretation. And it doesn’t hurt if it’s more flattering than it should have been.
It doesn’t hurt that the weakest moment in my performance was the best part of her experience of it.
So I share that story with you because there’s likely no moment in my career that that more clearly supports this idea that silence is a powerful tool in your presenting toolkit.
Here’s a useful inner mantra for you: smiling buys you time.
Silence allows your audience to process what you’re saying. To sit with it. To integrate it into their own experience.
It allows space for emotion and for authenticity.
And chances are, your audience is not going to immediately assume you don’t know what you’re talking about, or that you forgot what you were trying to say.
Since then, I could give you 100 examples of how silence has helped me be a more impactful speaker.
Instead, here are 3.
First example: In stand-up comedy, silence is an incredible method of regaining the floor when you get heckled. Rather than try to vanquish them, you can pause, take your time to think about how you want to respond, and say almost anything clever in return and get the audience’s buy-in. Because the audience came to hear you, not the drunk person in the third row. Similarly when you are interrupted during your workshop presentation, you can pause, think about what this person needs, and then neutralize them with a smile on your face but firmness in your voice.
Second example: Silence allows you to go off script when the conversation demands it. Perhaps you’re behind on your slides and running out of time. Perhaps you sense their interest waning and you want to jump ahead to your next point. Rather than speed up, or try to cover the pause with fast-talking, slow down. Pause. Collect your thoughts. Smile as though this is all going according to plan. And then restart at the next spot.
Third example: Silence is the key to meaningful interaction with your audience. One of the best places to use silence is when you ask questions. Have you ever been in a workshop where someone asked the question “Are there any questions? No, great. Let’s move on.” How could you have formed a response in the nanosecond that that speaker gave you to process? Instead, here is a practical technique that has served me really well, and I know will for you:
Ask your question, then smile, and in your head count to seven. It’s a long time – long enough that you’re going to have to power through that feeling of panic. That you should break the silence. Don’t. Give people time. I’ve found time and again, IF your question is a good question, it’s easy to answer, and you’ve created the necessary psychological safety for people to feel comfortable responding, by about beat five or six you’ll get a thoughtful response. Silence allows them to marshal the courage to respond, and figure out how to phrase their comment or question.
The more you use silence, the more comfortable you will get with it. You’ll start to see it as a kind of superpower.
Because when you ask a question, you can just pause and you’re like, this is fine. I’m not embarrassed because I know that this is a productive silence.
One more technique that’s worked for me – while they are sharing their answer, smile, and pre-commit that regardless of what they say, you will be on their side. You will connect with the person as much or more than the point that they’re making. If someone shares something vulnerable, you might first say “Thank you for your courage in sharing that. That was really helpful for all of us that you were able to show up like that.” And the people around them will nod and agree. In a very real sense, it’s not as relevant if you have the perfect answer to the question if you’re willing to respond in a way that makes them the hero.
All this inspiration from the time I almost failed in front of a thousand people, on a fancy stage, facing into blinding spotlights, in order to learn that silence isn’t failure. It’s high-value.
It’s a good reminder that sometimes the best thing to say is—and you saw this coming—saying nothing at all.