With the torrent of information that courses through the multiplicity of channels which exist to get in our faces, get inside our minds and change our behaviours, is silence the most underrated approach to communication a public relations professional possesses? Silence would certainly seem to offer the greatest point of difference – and, therefore, power? – a communicator possesses.
Nobel Prize winning author, Herta Muller, being interviewed in The Paris Review, said, “Silence is also a form of speaking. They’re exactly alike. It’s a basic component of language. For me, silence had always been another form of communication.”
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It’s tempting to think the noise of communication must be subscribed to, in western societies at least. Get on public transport, have a look around: the person not scrolling through texts or webpages on their smart phone, or talking on it, is the exception. How often do people who are in conversations with others put that face-to-face interaction on hold while they address the intrusive phone call? A lot, in my experience.
It seems humans are evolving so they thrive on being interrupted, on being intruded upon, on being habitually reliant on the ‘torrent of information’ noted earlier. Studies have identified the compromised business-relevant productivity this is delivering and whilst I haven’t seen studies which relate to the socio-emotional equivalent, my guess is the information deluge and conversation interruptus smart phones are delivering is having a profound effect on how we relate to each other as humans.
Competitiveness of noise in communication
It is a temptation – and a grave error – to think, and then apply, the notion that we need to communicate vociferously and frequently as a matter of course. It is natural to feel the fear of:
- not being seen to communicate (i.e. perceptions of being professional, doing the job etc)
- watching the competition create noise and attention while you are buttoning the (public) lip
- the information vacuum: is this giving rise to target audience uncertainty? Is – the vacuum or the uncertainty – a bad thing?
Or perhaps the ‘vacuum’ is leading to a sense of expectation, the thirst for which can be slaked at a strategically appropriate juncture? A negative outcome of the vacuum often discussed is that disinformation thrives in a vacuum, which is one influencing factor on dissatisfaction and negative behaviours, activities not normally in the best interests of an organisation.
As Herta Muller has pointed out, however, “silence is a form of speaking”. Silence can help an organisation or person position themselves as being above the fray (i.e. the ‘statesman’ effect). In other words, let the mud be flung but I won’t be part of it’. It’s amazing how much respect silence can generate, but so few organisations or professional communicators possess the self-control that allows them resist entering this ‘fray’.
The milieu of internal communication provides an excellent example of where information can be overkill. Organisations can fall victim to the perceived necessity that all employees need to know all information relevant to different parts of the business, when in fact what is occurring in distant parts of the business is of no interest to them, nor does it motivate them and doesn’t help them undertake the tasks which they have been employed to do.
“There is no speech nor language; their voice is not heard.” Psalm 19 *As quoted by Marilynne Robinson in Lila.
Yes, as in all communication, there is the beneficial sense of being part of a community. But so is there the factor of ‘is this information distracting me from doing what I am meant to be doing?’ The same thinking can be applied to selling a product. Is all this information/marketing/PR helping to sell the product, or is it ultimately dazzling me with science and confusing the decision making/sale process?
Silence and power
The race to making communication noise, whether it is organisational marketing or business meetings or personal conversations, is undertaken at the risk of:
- being disseminated before the recipient is ready to process the ‘noise’/information
- being used before the information is sophisticated enough to make the optimum impact
- making the communicator seem imprudent or, worse, obtuse or, worse still – in a business/profit generating/reputation enhancement dimension – negatively impacting on sales reputation et al.
There is power in the gap, the lack, the…pause. It carries weight. It speaks of restraint and thoughtfulness. It builds an expectation that when communication does occur, it is an activity worth paying heed to.
Yes, no matter how few or how many words or images are used, it may still be too many or too little or it may be effective or ineffective. But it’s tempting to deduce that the sage organisation/person speaks when it will create a desired effect, not simply because there is a vacuum to be filled or because the incipient modern day malaise of fearing silence is bearing, tsunami-like, down on the tortured mind.
Where have you found silence to be the communicator’s friend? Do you agree the amount of communication noise in society and in marketing more specifically is making it difficult for any organisation to have its voice heard? What is your advice on how to approach the noise-silence dialectic?
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