Did you know that an average reader can process about 20 words in four seconds (as you are doing now)?
That’s the number of words in the sentence immediately above this one. And it is also the number of words that would fill the white space between the first sentence and the second sentence.
I have been thinking about white space — both in print and in oral presentations — since I spoke to the Princeton Chamber of Commerce last week on the subject of stories and story telling. “Why stories still matter — in print and online” was the title.
I did not start the presentation with the usual “thank you, thank you, very much” chatter that I normally employ. Instead I began with a blank stare at the audience. A blank stare that lasted four full seconds.
The silence was intended to prove a point: That the pace of communications has gotten so fast and attention spans have grown so short that any empty space is unbearable. And that’s the environment in which a storyteller now has to function.
I did some research: On Memorial Day weekend I heard the baseball game announcer ask everyone to stand for a moment of silence to honor our fallen soldiers. I checked the watch: four seconds.
The movie people have a measurement called ASL — average shot length, the length of time a camera focused on one image before it switches to another angle or another scene. Thirty years ago the ASL used to be around seven seconds. Now it’s less than five seconds.
Twitter reports that 100-characters tweets have a 17 percent higher engagement rate than those that use the full 140-character allotment. I did the arithmetic: The average word is about five characters; with spaces that means about 18 words in a 100-character tweet. The average adult can read about 300 words a minute, or 20 in four seconds. A 100-character tweet falls within that four-second window. A 140-character tweet might take six seconds or so to absorb — a big investment of time.
I practiced the speech once with a 10-second (10!) “moment” of silence. I was so flummoxed rehearsing it that I could not even imagine pulling it off in public. Someone would probably guess I was having a stroke. I could imagine people reaching for cell phones and looking for the 9, 1, and 1. I finally settled on four seconds as a reasonable “pregnant pause.”
I’m happy to report that the silence was if not golden at least noticed, especially by two discerning members of the audience.
Barbara Fox, U.S. 1’s senior correspondent, took notes throughout the presentation for her blog, princetoncomment.com, and posted her take on the meeting later that same day (talk about a fast pace). Fox picked up on my “bit of gossip about Larry L. King,” the late author of “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” who led the nonfiction writing course at Princeton for a few years in the 1970s. Sharing some anecdotes about Teddy Kennedy King had told me about some unpleasant behavior by Kennedy at a party shortly after Chappaquiddick. King said that he and several other journalists had vowed to never let Kennedy get close to the presidency. Is the press always liberal?
Joining Fox in that same-day review of my presentation was Eileen Sinett of Speaking That Connects. I read Sinett’s critique with more trepidation. As a professional communications consultant and speech coach, she was no ordinary member of the audience. Right after the presentation was over, I asked her directly what I could have done to make it better.
There was one thing, she told me, out of earshot of the others: One of the “war stories” I shared seemed to be one too many. It wasn’t clear to her what purpose it served. At that point in the presentation, she noticed that a number of people started checking their cell phones — a modern day telltale. Sure enough, the story she referred to had been preceded in my outline by some connective tissue that explained why I was telling it. When my speech began to run long (rookie error), I cut the explanation and cut straight to the anecdote.
Writing for Fox’s blog, which would be circulated in public, Sinett concentrated on what worked, and why: “As a speech coach, I was especially taken by his smart opening which was void of verbiage. Yes, Rein opened with silence, four seconds worth (as the audience later learned). He created the ‘verbal white space’ that level-sets audience attention and highlights opening remarks. Silence is often scary for societies that talk a lot. I noticed one or two people in the audience getting antsy after two seconds of quiet, but saw the other 90 people in the audience palpably poised to listen and patiently await the stories that would soon unfold.
“Starting a speech with silence makes perfect sense. It can feel risky and uncomfortable at first, but the positive impact is quite rewarding. Silence is to speech, what margins are to writing. The ability to be present without words in speaking and in life can be a strong differentiator.”
Sinett mentioned my “four second” statistics and noted: “In this digital age, we have become great multi-taskers and short-cut communicators. However, I’m not sure that these gains offset our low tolerance for silence or our reduced listening attention.”
Verbal white space is a new phrase for me, but it is one that perfectly expresses Sinett’s approach to public speaking. In fact, she has trademarked the phrase.
In print we need to use white space, as well. The letter V in the paragraph above was created not so much to call attention to the V as it was to allow some white space to occur around and above it.
When we at U.S. 1 spew out long lists of information, you will see a little extra white space above each item in the list, just to let each piece have its own brief moment in the editorial sun.
The best of our short story submissions in this issue vary the pace of their narratives, as well. A long paragraph of narrative exposition may lead to a burst of staccato-like dialogue. A line of asterisks centered on a column often represents a switch from one scene to another. Thankfully no one is measuring average shot lengths (those pesky ASLs).
The lessons of an oral presentation linger after the applause and post-presentation chit chat has ended. Hopefully a printed piece will reverberate for a few moments, as well:
If I’m lucky maybe even for four seconds.