The mesmerizing, attention-grabbing power of silence

I catch myself droning on in class. Do you? Pause and let it all sink in. Your students will thank you.

I catch myself droning on in class. Do you? Pause and let it all sink in. Your students will thank you.

I hate catching myself droning. It’s a nasty habit that I’ve acquired. Even though I’m trying to kick that habit, I still catch myself doing it.

I’m not talking about little helicopters, and I’m not talking about bees.

I’m talking about droning on. And on. And on.

From the Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English, the definitions of “drone” as a verb:

Make a continuous low humming sound.

Speak tediously in a dull, monotonous tone.

When I teach — and when I present to teachers — and I’m talking about something, if I’m not careful, I start to drone.

I get wrapped up in the message that I’m presenting. My mind is excitedly jumping from point to point in a logical, methodical fashion. I know where I’m going next — my next point, my next topic, the entire framework of what I’m talking about.

And I catch myself droning. Not so much that my tone is dull and monotonous, and definitely not that I’m making a continuous low humming sound.

I talk and I don’t stop. I don’t stop to let myself catch my breath. But worse, I don’t stop to let my audience (students, teachers or whomever) catch their breath.

In my efforts to ditch those textbook ways of educating that aren’t working, I have found that I’m not alone in my droning. I’ve seen droning in other classes in my own school. I’ve seen droning in classes around the United States. And I’ve seen droning in presentations at education conferences.

(Sadly, the conferences are where I see the most droning. Presenters are supposed to be sharing best practices for teaching with the attendees at their sessions. But often they’re lecturing — droning! — and using less-than-effective teaching techniques themselves!)

Silence is powerful for a number of reasons:

  • It gives listeners a moment to catch their breath cognitively and refocus.
  • It gives listeners some time to process what you’ve said and consider it.
  • It lets teachers/presenters catch their breath. (Oxygen is crucial to brain activity!)
  • It can regain the attention of disinterested listeners.



Our brains only process four things at once. Pause and let it soak in.

Our brains only process four things at once. Pause and let it soak in. Click here to tweet this image!

Think of the best speakers, presenters, teachers, etc. you’ve seen. I’ll bet they don’t go on and on and on without taking a moment to pause. To let you think. To let you be inspired. To let you change.

Carmine Gallo, the author of “Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds”, gives four suggestions in his section, “How to Say It So People Listen.”

The first three:

  • rate of speech
  • volume
  • pitch

The fourth: “Pauses: Short pauses to punch key words.”

Dave Burgess, author of “Teach Like a PIRATE” (on engaging, inspiring, passion-filled classes), devotes an entire engagement hook in his book to the subject of silence — the Mime Hook.

Dave asks, “How can I use the mesmerizing power of silence to spark interest and engage?”

Here’s my question — Why don’t we use the mesmerizing power of silence to spark interest and engage?

I think it’s because we’re afraid to.

What happens when we’re teaching and we stop? We lose control. Silences can easily be filled, and students might fill the silence. They might say something inappropriate. They might ask a question we don’t know the answer to. What might happen?

But stopping — at least momentarily — is so important for our brain processes. Scientists think that our brains can only process about four things at once. When we drone on and on, we’re trying to squeeze all of this information into a space that can only be occupied by four things.

When we pause, we let the brain deal with what it has heard and reset, getting ready for more.

We want to be heard when we speak, right?

If that’s correct, and if you’re like me, try speaking less when you speak.

Pause. Let the ideas soak in. Give your audience a cognitive breath of fresh air.

And if you catch yourself droning, stop, take a sip of water, smile, and go on.

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