The sounds of silence

Great comedians love silence. Great business executives fear it.

Texting-300x300A recent New York Times profile of comedian Maria Bamford proved my point about the former.

Ms. Bamford just produced a one-hour comedy show called ‘The Special Special Special!’ on For a full 60 minutes, Ms. Bamford did her bits for her mother and father alone as they sat on their family room couch. According to the Times review, while her material was hilarious, it was often met by deafening silence from Bamford’s either disapproving or clueless parents. But, that didn’t stop the comedian, who went through her paces and, indeed, seemed to gain energy from the silence.

That’s not unusual for comedians. I’ve learned to embrace silence on stage. I like to let the audience go completely silent after the slightest twitter or the longest, loudest laugh. I also acknowledge silence when my material isn’t connecting with the audience. In fact, I make light of it by saying, “Wow, I can just tell by those stone-cold sober stares and folded arms that you are having the time of your lives tonight.” That almost invariably breaks the tension and allows me to move forward with renewed confidence.

I now do the same thing in business meetings. Before studying comedy, I dreaded a pregnant pause or awkward silence from a prospective or current client or, worse, from an audience when I was delivering a speech or sitting on a panel. Now, though, I embrace it. I’ll often turn the obvious passivity to my advantage by saying, “I can tell by the massive amount of texting at the moment that you just loved what I had to say and are now sharing it with your colleagues. Thanks. That means a great deal to me.” Even the most jaded corporate denizen usually cracks a smile after that.

I’ll also use silence to my advantage in an important new business pitch (something I’d have never even considered in the past). Here’s a recent example:

We were in the midst of a positioning presentation, and were sharing the attributes and faults of the prospect. After reciting the list, I paused for silence and said, “I’d like you to study that chart carefully because it explains why we’ll be such great partners (pause). People would use your weaknesses to describe Peppercomm and we’d be the first to say we’d never measure up to any of your strengths.” (pause). I then smiled and said, “And, you know what they say about how opposites attract? We were meant for each other!” The momentary silence ended when the entire conference room erupted in laughter. Score one point for Peppercomm.

So, don’t be afraid of silence. Make it your friend. When used effectively, it can be your greatest ally in a critically important business meeting.

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