When You’ve Got Nothing to Say, It’s Best to Say Nothing

Saturday Night Live (season 32)
(Photo via Wikipedia)

SNL producer Lorne Michaels once famously said, “We don’t go on [the air] because we’re ready, we go on because it’s 11:30.”

I cited that in my book as a lesson for business: big public events drive accountability. Too often it’s easy to let deadlines slide, but when you’re standing up in front of shareholders or employees or sales reps at a major meeting, you damn well ought to deliver on what you’ve promised.

On countless occasions in my career I’ve had my back to the wall, working with a client to finish up a press release or speech or video or article or program plan or strategy in time for its public kick-off.

Of course, there’s also a serious downside to these externally-driven deadlines.

Throughout its history, SNL has done sketches parodying the presidential debates. In recent years, these sketches have taken on outsized importance in our culture, often capturing in a single soundbite the essence of a campaign, whether it’s Al Gore stiffly referring to his “lockbox” or Sarah Palin assuring us that she can see Russia from her house.

Now the debate sketch is expected, even demanded, by viewers. So what happens when a debate isn’t all the eventful? The first Obama-Romney debate had its moments — Romney’s domination, Obama’s downward scowl at his podium and, of course, Big Bird. Other than that, there wasn’t a lot of material to go on.

As head writer Seth Meyers said:

“It’s boring enough when they’re talking about all this and how it will affect Americans, but when you’re sitting there trying to pull comedy out of it, it’s really bad,” Mr. Meyers said. “There were people on Twitter saying: ‘You must be really happy, there’s so much in this debate. This is writing itself.’ I was like: what debate are you watching?”

In the same article, veteran writer Jim Downey expressed similar reservations: “This was the toughest assignment I’ve ever had on one of these.” For three days Downey struggled to spin gold out of straw, and in the dress rehearsal just before the live show, he even suggested they pull the sketch.

But they didn’t. They ran with it anyway, and other than a solid bin Laden joke, the sketch was fairly unmemorable. But viewers expected a debate sketch and Lorne Michaels apparently felt the show had to deliver on those expectations. It was tradition, after all.

(Ironically, SNL was a show founded on the premise of defying tradition and breaking boundaries, but it’s long since become part of the establishment.)

And this is the problem that often comes up in business. We have a newsletter to put out, a page to fill, a blog to post. The hole must be filled, even if we don’t have something worthwhile to fill it with. Content takes a backseat to schedule. The medium drives the message.

Reliability is important. Showing up is important. But when you’ve got nothing to say, it’s okay to say nothing.