Silence is golden

What is the most important part of any speech or presentation? My answer would be – the silence within it. The subject of silence and pausing is an essential part of message design and delivery, but is often overlooked or diminished in importance. A number of things came together recently which highlighted this business of pausing  – one of them being the Presidential nominations and forthcoming election in the US. More on that later.

Our need for pauses

Anybody with a theatre or comedy background would fully appreciate the importance of timing and the dramatic effect of well positioned pauses. A comment made by the Canadian sculptor Paul De Monchaux about Churchill’s war-time speeches (and the way that they were laid out on the page) resonated particularly well with me. He said that he “was struck by Churchill’s awareness of the way in which the shape of the spaces around words can amplify their meaning.”

But there is much more to the power of the pause than “dramatic effect”. This is the fact that as an audience we need silence in which to “unpack” what we have heard, translate words into ideas and meaning, and create memory. As an audience we find it stressful to have to listen to a continuous stream of words – and even if we can follow and understand what we are hearing as we hear it, we will not be able to remember anything unless the stream was broken up with pauses.

The speaker’s problem

The problem that the speaker faces is that the stress – even fear – associated with delivering a presentation will cause him or her to speed up the rate of word delivery and, more importantly, remove any hint of a pause. Often, this will be associated with breathlessness – no time to breathe!

I had the pleasure of running some communications training courses in India last month. One of them comprised eight delegates representing seven different mother tongue languages. In common with all groups I have trained regardless of geography, a number of the delegates experienced an overwhelming pressure to speed up delivery and they recognised it as a “hard to conquer” problem. With some, the shaping of the phrases (probably a reflection of their mother tongue languages) meant also that there was a rising tone at the end of each. This in turn created a breathless leap to the next phrase…. and the next.

The speaker gains too

We did some exercises to build in appropriate pauses of about 3 seconds (this is not easy to do!) and to try and phrase in a way which avoided the rising tone. The key learning for me was that everyone in the room testified to the very significant improvements made. This was not just in the ability of the audience to understand and create memory, it was also about the great enhancement to the credibility and authority of the speakers.

Then there was a Presidential election

Which leads me to politics. It is of course a fact that most politicians are rarely interested in helping audiences understand issues and create memory. But they are generally, at least, concerned to come over and be remembered, as someone with credibility and authority.

Some combine both and I have great respect for them. A characteristic of such orators is that they do – and indeed must – build pauses in to their delivery. I have frequently referred to Obama as a politician who practises this. (There are precious few in UK politics these days.) In his early days as US President I would sometimes listen to his speeches in order to time the embedded pauses – they were usually 2-3 seconds. This is at the lower end of what is needed – 3-4 seconds is more the accepted mark – but they did work well. However, I noticed in a recent broadcast (I cannot remember what it was about – sic!) that he was not pausing nearly so well.  As a result, he came over as less authoritative and perhaps a little superficial.

But when it came to him responding to Todd Akin’s statement about rape, the pauses were, fortunately, back in.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-19326638  They were still a bit on the short side though, and with an irritating “ummmm” intruding. So, Obama, beware! One of the reasons you won the Presidential mantle was the authority that you exuded – and this came not just from your words but from the silences that enabled us to make sense of them, and of you. So, more pauses please!

It is worth comparing and contrasting with Mitt Romney. From the clips I have seen, he has certainly got himself a “good” speech writer. Good in the sense that the words are well crafted to create a knee-jerk emotional response and the minimum number are used in short phrases to create that effect.  And the pauses have been built in between these short phrases – wait for them to cheer! Romney is still learning though how to be comfortable during a pause – you can see him almost biting his tongue – but  at least there were no “ummmms” that I could discern. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-19445965

If your view of politics and politicians is that it should be about whipping up emotions – hate, love, disappointment, blind faith and so on, then the Romney style of speech will appeal to you. I know it is only a nomination acceptance speech and perhaps one should not expect more at this stage, but let us hope that there will be time in the coming months for both candidates to argue and evidence their intentions and policies in more considered debate.

What is clear is that even though the men, their politics and their styles are very different, their success in communication relies upon silence as much as words.

So, I do wonder whether the US Presidential election will be won, not on what the candidates say or do, but on the power of their pauses – “the shape of the spaces around words”.

Advertisements

Visual aids and India PAN

Although accurate, I suspect this is an unhelpful ttle for this post. Actually, they are two unrelated things linked only because I have had the fun of running communications training programmes in India over recent years. And I thought my recent experiences with India withholding tax might be useful to some.

Visual Aids

It always surprises me that so much unhelpful and incorrect advice is given on presentation design and delivery skills. I suspect it comes from the “Give them a few tips” culture. I was running a training session recently and we were examining the use of visual aids, and the sequence which works best for an audience given the way in which our eyes, ears and brains work. It is as many of you may know: deliver the idea you wish to put over, describe what you are going to show your audience and what to look out for, then show the visual aid (and avoid talking over it!)….. and then remove it.

One of my course delegates said that he had recently been on a Consulting Skills course run by the “global University” of a major IT services supplier.The tip they provided for using visual aids (I think in this case flipcharts) was Touch, Turn and Talk. Although I understand that there may be circumstances where this sequence may be used – especially with flipcharts – as a general rule for visual aids, it is entirely the wrong way round. Perhaps it was a “tip”  conceived by someone who has been schooled in  “Show and Tell” at a tender age.

India PAN

If you do any work for an Indian company (but are registered elsewhere such as the UK) you will know that the Indian Tax Department levies withholding tax. Up until a couple of years ago this was levied at a rate of a little over 10%. So, you invoiced £8000 and the client paid you £7115.40. The client would also send you a certificate of withholding tax paid. If you are a UK registered acompany, you could offset this amount against your UK Corporation Tax later.

However, this regime changed in 2010 and new rules have been introduced by the India Tax Department which could cause you to lose money. You now need to have a PAN – a Personal Account Number – issued by the India Tax Department. It comes in the form of a credit card sized piece of plastic. If you have a PAN number for your company and can quote this to your client, they will deduct withholding tax at the rate of 10.56% and will also provide a certificate of withholding tax paid – just as before.

But now, if you do not have a PAN number, withholding tax has to be deducted at the rate of 20%. But the real rub is the fact that a certificate of deduction of withholding tax will not be issued if you do not have a PAN. So, no offset against Corporation Tax and you stand to lose 20% of your charged fees.

I did try and work out how to apply for a PAN card, but believe me, it is not easy. And, as I discovered, there are some pitfalls – things that are not included in the instructions provided with the forms on-line. But help is at hand – help that I would strongly urge you to get hold of before applying for a PAN card. In my case I used the services of the NRI Centre based in Hounslow – NRICentre.NET [nriservices@nricentre.net]. For a very modest fee, they provided much needed advice, and then took away all the hassle of dealing with the India Tax Department, including the payment of the PAN card fee.

Getting documents together and having them legally endorsed took a few days. From sending the application to the NRI Centre, it took 5 weeks before I got confirmation of my PAN number (from the NRI Centre) and a further 10 days before the plastic arrived.

So, if you are going to do work in India for an Indian registered company, it would be wise to apply for a PAN card well in advance.