The Sound of Silence: How Trainers Can Draw Commitment And Teach Responsibility

Many of us feel uncomfortable with silence.

Therefore a common piece of advice to speakers is to pause more while presenting.

An interesting voice is a voice of contrasts: fast, slow; loud, soft; high low.

And probably the most telling contrast of all is between sound and silence.

The ability to pause and use silence effectively, as well as creating space, also gives the listener a chance to catch up with what is being said.

In the training room it is particularly important for trainers to understand the power of silence.

It can be very annoying for a student to be asked a question and then be immediately crowded out because the trainer does not give enough time to reflect and respond.

Silence is a great tool precisely because it creates a degree of pressure and expectancy.

That is why at strategic moments during training, particularly when asking for a volunteer to go first in an exercise, I ask the question:

'Who wants to go first?'

I avoid all eye-contact - because I do not want to put any extra pressure on any particular individual…

….and I wait.

Inevitably trainers ask me:

'What if no one responds?'

Someone always will - eventually!

In my mind I make an internal decision not to say another word until someone answers.

We could be sitting in silence all day!

In reality there will be someone there who sees themselves as a leader and chooses to go first; or there may be someone who thinks - 'Let's get this over with quickly.'

Or, failing that, there will always be someone who after a few moments thinks:

'This silence is getting embarrassing.'

Someone is going to speak and it is not going to be me.

If I choose a 'volunteer' myself, I may be seen as putting on pressure.

If the activity or presentation goes badly, it becomes my fault because I pressurised them into it.

However if they volunteer themselves and it goes wrong (which it wont of course), it has become their responsibility because they opted to go first!

This is not meant cynically or manipulatively. 

It simply helps our students to become actively involved in their own development.

If they are only participating to please me, then they are still only taking part in my training.

If they are participating because they chose to volunteer themselves, they have now taken responsibility for their own training.

If you are standing next to a cold swimming pool, would you rather be pushed in or jump in yourself?

Some people would want to be pushed, but most of us would rather choose to jump when we are good and ready.

Silence not only creates space and contrast within a presentation, it can also be used to draw commitment.

Used properly, silence teaches people to choose; it teaches people to think for themselves.

This article was written by Michael Ronayne, director at the College of Public Speaking and four-time UK National Public Speaking Champion. To discover more of Michael's top training techniques, check out his professionally accredited Train the Trainer course here