Wednesday, October 13, 2010

As a speaker, are you comfortable with silence?

The question is posed, still hanging in the air. And you're silent--and uncomfortable, because you don't have the answer immediately at the ready. Or it's the other way around:  You ask your audience a question, and no one speaks right away.  Crickets chirp, or at least it seems that way. Those seconds feel like hours.

It may sound counterintuitive, but for many speakers, silence is the biggest challenge, the thing that undermines confidence, derails your train of thought, prompts stumbling responses, or causes you to freeze in your tracks, physically as well as verbally.  When I asked readers of The Eloquent Woman on Facebook about what it means to be "good on your feet," three professional communicators and coaches pointed out that your ability as a speaker to handle silence is one of the hallmarks of being "good on your feet."  Here's what they said: 
  • Dana Bristol-Smith observed, "People are so afraid of silence! They mistakenly think that if they take a moment to give a thoughtful reply to a question that they are showing a weakness. I think being good on your feet means that you are comfortable enough to present and respond to questions and you know how to handle yourself if you don't know the answer."
  • Cathy Carlozzi noted, "I'm working with a client now on a speech and I'm helping her anticipate the questions she's likely to receive, especially the negative ones. And I agree that there's nothing wrong with taking the time to marshal your thoughts rather than shooting from the hip."
  • Claire Duffy recommended staying "staying animated, not freezing. Thoughtful silent spots are OK but clamming up is not. I've a client so terrified of 'improv', she can't take a meeting. I just saw a presentation on a fascinating topic but the speaker froze like a rabbit in the headlights when the audience wanted to know more. It's got to stay warm and alive regardless of what you actually say."
To me, dynamic speaking doesn't just involve those high-energy, animated, smooth-talking moments that speakers and audiences crave, but that everyday ability to be comfortable with your silences or those of the audience--and to know what to say when you don't know what to say.  No speaker will be able to avoid silences, and no speaker will have the answers to all questions, but you can learn skills to handle them deftly, including:
  • time-buying phrases that give you seconds to think when you're thrown off-balance;
  • a developed message you can use to reinforce your points and bring the conversation back where you want it to be;
  • graceful ways to engage further with the questioner, both to give you more background information and to buy yourself time;
  • ways to handle questions when you don't know the answer--and don't wish to speculate; and
  • ways to keep your comfort level high when you're in extemporaneous speaking situations, particularly when taking questions.
Those are among the skills we'll be focusing on in "Good on Your Feet," my forthcoming workshop on dynamic speaking skills. Registrations are coming in now, and you'll find the details for joining this small-group training below.  I'm keeping the group size small so you'll have plenty of time for practice--and for asking questions!   Feel free to share your thoughts on silences--and how you handle them--below.

Learn how to be a dynamic speaker in my next two-day workshop, Good on Your Feet: A dynamic speaking skills workshop, November 3 and 4 in Washington, DC. And if you subscribe to Step Up Your Speaking, the free monthly email newsletter from The Eloquent Woman, you'll get 25% off the workshop registration fee. Go here to subscribe...then become a fan of The Eloquent Woman on Facebook and join the conversation with thousands of other women (and men) about public speaking skills and confidence.