Elizabeth: The Power of Silence

As I mentioned in last Friday’s post, I spent the past week at a big, high-level series of events for my Day Job.  There were many speakers, with styles as varied as the topics they spoke on; most of which I’ve already forgotten.

One of the speakers, however, really caught and held my attention.  It wasn’t because of his subject matter (my team had prepared some of his talking-points); it was how he connected with the audience and kept their attention focused.  He wasn’t giving a speech as much as he was telling a story, and like any good storyteller, he made sure his audience was with him every step of the way.

Unlike some of the other speakers, who seemed to be trying to fit as much material into their allotted time as possible, this speaker was rather sparse with his words.  His style made me think about dropping pebbles in a lake.  If you throw in a bunch of pebbles all at once, all you really get is a big splash, but one at a time, you can see the individual ripples slowly echo and then die away.  The speech was a series of pebbles, slowly dropped into still waters, with the occasional invitation to the audience to laugh along at a comment or observation.  The periods of quiet both gave weight to the points that were made and provided the time for them to sink in and resonate.

As both an occasional speaker (under duress) and a writer, it’s a style I’d like to emulate.  Although a writer doesn’t have the luxury of long pauses in a story, that feeling of slowing things down or focusing on the steady delivery of information rather than a barrage all at once is definitely doable through pacing, structure, and sentence style.

As Jilly mentioned in her post on Sunday, sometimes a few words (like her “daft apeth”) can be more effective than a full page of description.   As a reader, the less-is-more style of writing gets me more involved in a story and at a closer level, because I mentally fill in the details that are not provided.  I definitely prefer that over stories that seem to have an over-abundance of words.  The book I just finished from my TBR pile, which came in at 450+ pages, suffered plot-wise from just such an over-abundance of words.  The characters and their actions got a little lost in flowery passages and detailed descriptions, which led to skimming and wandering attention.

My own writing style is definitely on the sparse end of the scale, rather than the abundant end.  It is unlikely there will ever be any 450+ pages books in my future, but I can still work on making the words I do write as effective and evocative as possible so that my readers don’t skim or wander off.

Adding a little humor now and then wouldn’t hurt either.

So, have you encountered any really memorable speakers lately?  If so, was it their style or their topic that caught your attention?

8 thoughts on “Elizabeth: The Power of Silence

  1. As a reader, my favorite style of writing is where the density/extent of description varies. Two pages of text dedicated to the creepy atmosphere of the woods as the sun sets is okay, as long as that kind of thing is interspersed (sparingly) among the sections of sparse, clean writing.

    As for memorable speakers, I’ve heard a few old clips, recently, and politicians really used to have a flair for pacing and delivery. JFK and Churchill knew how to keep the listener fully engaged, and Obama clearly knew how to use pauses in his speeches to build tension.

    • I like a style that varies as well. Too much of any one style can get a bit tedious; the challenge is figuring out the right mix.

      You’re right about politicians – many have had a “flair for pacing and delivery.” I may have to YouTube some for inspiration.

  2. In terms of listening to a presentation, the storytelling aspect is important to me to keep me engaged—a sustained narrative of some sort and possibly an energetic speaking style, as well. Or at least a style that connects to the audience somehow. And sometimes a gimmick helps me recall the point of the talk. I’m reminded of two speakers at RWA, both of them well-known, both with good (and similar) topics—one of which I remember, and the other, I don’t.

    As a reader, usually a little description, for example, goes a long way with me. In general, I’m less interested in exposition than I am in dialogue, so lots of pages where not much gets said tend to leave me unenthusiastic.

    • I’m always surprised to recognize story-telling in place I don’t expect it, like presentations. Even at my Day Job, when I’m talking about economic impact, it’s not about numbers, it’s about telling (and selling) the story.

      I’m with you on the preference for limited description. I tend to skim that, even in the best of books and concentrate more on the dialogue / action sections.

  3. At the recent RWA conference, Damon Suede made a string impression on me. His style was the speaking equivalent of Micki Jagger’s singing. He raced up and down in front of the room, spewing words like lava, including sexual metaphors that were just risqué enough to be hilarious. When he paused or slowed down, it grabbed your attention because of the contrast.

    I don’t write like that, or especially want to, but it was extremely effective for him.

    • You’re right Jeanne, his presentation style was very effective and engaging. I still can’t believe that last session was 2-hours long; it seemed like it was over in about 15 minutes. I just bought the recording of that session because I’m sure I missed a lot of it. It will be interesting to see how his style comes across with just audio.

      I don’t write like that and think it might be pretty exhausting both to write and to read, but probably very entertaining.

  4. I’m a big fan of ellipses and white space in my writing. Also, the old trick of going on and on like an exuberant J.D. Salinger tribute writer, filling my spaces with description and hope and light, and then suddenly giving the reader a little pause for thought.

    Like this.

    LOL, I like it. But I don’t know how many readers will put up with it.

    • I like “white space in my writing” (and reading) too. It can be overwhelming when there is an abundance of detail and description. That’s a challenge for me when I’m reading authors from the early 19th century, where they style was to go on and on and on. It takes a different mindset to read a story like that as opposed to a contemporary novel.

      A little “pausing for thought” would probably go a long way for most readers.

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