Sounds of Silence

The legendary Broadway composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, died last year at the age of 91, but his legacy lives on. His many Broadway musicals earned him eight Tony Awards, multiple Grammy Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize, but he also wrote two impressive books in which he shared the secrets of his craft:

  • Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes
  • Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany

When the first book was published, the New York Times called upon an equally legendary songwriter, Paul Simon, the former partner of Art Garfunkel, to write a review. The book and the review contain valuable advice about words and music—shared by Mr. Simon and Mr. Sondheim—that is applicable to presentations: how audiences process what they hear.

During a discussion of rhyming lyrics in the book, Mr. Sondheim described the consequence of a poor rhyme:

By the time the ear has figured out what is actually being sung, the singer is in the middle of the next line and the listener has to waste his concentration on catching up.

In the review, Mr. Simon added his own view on the subject:

I have a similar thought regarding attention span and a listener’s need for time to digest a complicated line or visualize an unusual image. I try to leave a space after a difficult line—either silence or a lyrical cliché that gives the ear a chance to “catch up” with the song before the next thought arrives and the listener is lost.

Given his famous 1965 song, “Sounds of Silence,” Mr. Simon knows whereof he speaks.

The two composers’ opinions are echoed by those of two jazz musicians. Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, the father of BeBop once said, “It’s taken me most of my life to know which notes not to play.” And tenor saxophonist Houston Person, in a Wall Street Journal profile, said:

Silence is as much a part of the music as the notes are. After all, if you were to speak to someone and not pause here and there everything would have equal importance. You use silence to underline something, whether you play it on an instrument or speak it in a conversation.

Once is an opinion, twice an affirmation, three times a trend, and the fourth makes it sound advice you would do well to follow in presentations.

Put spaces between your words—and images—to allow your audiences to absorb the points of your message. When you present, speak with a cadence that includes pauses between your phrases, and when you design your slides, surround your images with empty space.

Listen to the masters and pause.

This blog is an excerpt from my book Winning Strategies for Power Presentations published by Pearson. Also check out my newly released Presentation Trilogy—Presenting to Win, The Power Presenter, and In the Line of Fireavailable on Amazon and other retailers.