About That Blank Email You Got

by May 10, 2021Leadership, Method, Narrative

Friday’s “This Email Intentionally Left Blank ” post triggered many reactions. You sent me replies like “???”, “Nice!”, “Made me smile!”, “This piece is worth a lot.”, or “I don’t know what this is, but it makes me want to write.” And even if you didn’t hit “reply”, I am ready to bet that you almost did.

With that email, I wanted to address a topic too often overlooked in leadership and strategy: silence.

Whether silence is visual or auditory, it can feel risky and awkward. However, we need it. Why is silence so crucial when you create a strategic narrative?

As Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim writes in the New York Times, “As social beings, we are hard-wired to interpret breaks in the flow of human communication. We recognize the pregnant pause, the stunned silence, the expectant hush. A one-beat delay on an answer can reveal hesitation or hurt, or play us for laughs.”

Silence is a primal way to move people to action. That’s what a strategic narrative is about.

Silence makes the narrative.

Silence makes the music. According to Debussy, the music is not in the notes, but in the spaces between them. Similarly, Miles Davis said, “It’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.”

The same goes for your strategic narrative. Silence creates surprise, and it’s a critical element of storytelling. It helps focus and contrast. All of a sudden, there is something noticeable in the noise. It provides a break for people to chew on ideas and digest them.

Visual silence clarifies your message and elevates your voice.

Less is more.

For instance, when you use presentations, visual silence, also known as “whitespace” or “negative space,” is an essential element in design.

Visual silence makes your narrative easier to scan and read. It clarifies relationships. Beyond this functional consideration, it also creates a feeling of elegance.

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

Silence engages the mind.

We ignore white space. We don’t consider it per se. But when your eyes see it, your brain tricks you. Gestalt principles demonstrate the types of shortcuts our brain makes all the time in order to quickly make sense of the world. Unconsciously, our brain fills the blanks created by missing information. It needs to make a shortcut to connect the dots, so we can feel safe about what we experience. When we see white space, or when we hear silence, our brain wants to fill it. We wonder what is going on. The narrative machine inside our head engages in the creation of a super production of inner chatter. Silence activates the brain and drives engagement.

When you let people fill in the details, it turns people from an audience to participants. The proof is in the high number of replies I received from my Friday email.

Silence is an invitation to join.

Silence gives people the right to dream. It frees up the biggest ideas from noise and conventions.

With your team: ask people about their aspirations and invite them to share their vision. Capture it visually so everyone can see what you heard and so they feel heard.

Also, what would happen if, instead of showing up with a crowded slide deck in front of your clients, you only had a blank sheet of paper for you to listen and take notes? They would fill the blank with their wishes, probably giving you the solution to close the sale.

Capture inspiration with a net of silence.

My brother reminded me that the first musical note is always a second of silence. That’s because we want inspiration to come. Inspiration is a very temperamental animal. Please don’t wait for it to show up. Capture it with a net of auditory and visual silence.

When you create your narrative, start with a moment of silence and the white space of a blank page. Silence is the “Zero” before the “One” of visionary leaders.

The ultimate stage of a narrative is silence.

It is commonly admitted that the narrative is the sum of what you say about a topic. I would argue that what is actually unsaid matters even more.

A narrative hits maximum power when it’s so established that we barely even talk about it anymore. For instance, when the concept of Rideshare came out, the debate about its validity was fierce. Today, it is so normal to call an Uber to go somewhere that this innovation is almost an old story. When a narrative is silent, that’s when it’s ready to deconstruct it and create a new one.

The irony is that I could go on for a while. How about I be quiet about silence for now?

How about I turn it over to you and invite you to join the conversation? I would love to hear how you interpreted this Friday’s “This Email Intentionally Left Blank ” post.

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