Emma Gonzalez and the Profound Power of Silence in a Speech

silence speechWherever you stand on the issue of guns, it’s hard to deny the power of Emma Gonzalez’s short speech at the “March for Our Lives” rally last weekend.

As many have remarked, it wasn’t just the things she said, but the long, dark empty space she left between the words.

And with nothing but the greatest respect for the solemnity of the occasion, her discipline in maintaining that silence points to an important issue that many everyday presenters (most of them many years her senior) struggle with.

But first, about that silence.

Four Long Minutes of Silence

For more than four minutes she held the stage in complete silence. It was unsettling and confusing, but ultimately inspiring and compelling. Here’s a version of the speech that NBC abbreviated:

They included just 40 seconds or so of the silence, and it already feels long. CNN has the full, un-cut version here.

It feels like an eternity, and yet it wasn’t as long as the hot takes suggested. As Gonzalez herself clarified, “imagine how long it would have felt if it actually was 6 minutes:”

Nature Abhors a Vacuum

It’s fascinating to watch the crowd dynamic. Unsure of what was happening or what to do, the audience occasionally tries to fill the void. As a Washington Post writer put it, “[S]ome people started to chant, or applaud, perhaps because the rule in this society seems to be that if there is a vacuum of noise, someone has to make some.”

That’s exactly it. Nature abhors a vacuum. There’s a reason it’s called an “awkward silence” or a “pregnant pause.” Silence is discomfiting, especially in an age of sensory bombardment, where we can barely find a quiet moment in a library these days.

Here’s the Lesson for Presenters

I was working with an executive a couple of years ago and we identified a critical point in his speech where a pause would increase its impact. Why pause? Among other benefits, it allows your point to land and the audience to absorb it. It signals, “This is important! Pay attention!”

In rehearsal the night before his big speech he blew right through the pause we planned. Afterwards I asked him, “What happened to the pause?” And he was surprised because in his mind he did pause.

But it wasn’t nearly long enough. What felt like an eternity to him on stage went by in a blink for the audience. But he rushed through it because he was feeling what the people at the protest were feeling — an embarrassing awkwardness.

Get Comfortable With Silence

This is what advanced speakers are capable of doing. They develop such mastery of their content, such confidence in their delivery, such ownership of the stage, that they are able to achieve a seemingly effortless fluidity and forward momentum.

But then, every once in a while, they bring it all to a halt, in a powerful way that demands attention.

Of course, the silence for speakers on “normal” occasions should be a few seconds, not minutes. Speakers should pause a little longer than feels comfortable, keeping in mind that the audience experiences the passage of time in a much different way.

It’s not an easy thing to do, which makes this young person’s masterful use of silence so inspiring. Along with, of course, the powerful words she expressed, too.