When Saying Nothing Says Something

Do we have any JT fans out there? (That’s Justin Timberlake for rest of you.) His latest release, Man of the Woods, includes an excellent soul-pop-blues duet with Chris Stapleton titled “Say Something.” The song culminates with this catchy hook: “Sometimes the greatest way to say something is to say nothing at all.” (I highly recommend a listen.)

I suspect we’ve all heard or used the old “pause for effect” effect. Sometimes punctuating your words with silence has just as much of a communication impact as a bold statement. In her brief speech at the recent “March for Our Lives” event, Marjory Stoneman Douglas student Emma Gonzalez included a 4 minute 26 second window of silence to acknowledge the time it took an active shooter to act out a horrific attack on his classmates and teachers. Politics aside (please), this was a powerful pause for effect. And few could argue that Gonzalez certainly managed to say something by saying nothing at all.

Four and a half minutes in our go-go-go, can’t stop/won’t stop, busy-ness-filled days usually seems like a camera flash or a puff of smoke. But when we are unexpectedly presented with four minutes of raw, inescapable silence, it seems like an eternity. It can feel surprising, awkward, uncomfortable, disturbing, anxious, curious, calming or a combination of all the above. The point is, we notice.

Consider the jarring blackout during this year’s Super Bowl LII, when our televisions went dark for a whopping 30 seconds. Who among us didn’t stammer in confusion and find ourselves out of sorts from the sudden stall in a constant stream of content? It was an unintentional blip, but it got our attention.

In our never-ending quest to say something—and often, everything—to our audience, we try to cram as many words and ideas into a brief moment as possible. Driven by the “goldfish mentality” we assume the only way to be memorable is to say it all and say it fast. We consistently use “punch you in the face” tactics in our news headlines, our marketing efforts and even personal interactions—never considering that a pause or extended exhale might be the unexpected and welcome communication tactic that best grabs and holds our listener’s attention.

To be sure, the right words have immense power. But when married with well-timed and intentional spaces, we allow our audience room to breathe, reflect, and feel something far deeper than even the most perfectly constructed sentence can provoke. After all, at the core of all communication, we simply want to be heard, understood and remembered.

What if your most memorable way to say something is to say nothing at all?