The Sound of Silence

Activity ground to a halt on Monday at 11 am as President Obama led the nation in observing a moment of silence for those slain in Tucson. Silence can accomplish things words cannot.

Silence commands respect. A stadium full of people becomes silent as the National Anthem is sung.

As I grew up in the Simon and Garfunkel era, one of my favorite songs was "The Sound of Silence" which has multiple levels of meaning. "But my words like silent raindrops fell and echoed in the wells of silence," can lead in many directions. That, however, is what silence does:  it gives you time to think and ponder, whether a silence of a few seconds or a silence of minutes. That is why silence plays such a role in communication. Without the silence of the pause between sentences or at the ends of thoughts or in the middle of a sentence to dramatize what is coming next, words would have less meaning.

That's why the statement by Houston Person, jazz tenor saxophonist, has a significant communication application. As he was quoted in a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal, "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."

Silence encourages people to think for themselves. We all know what solitary time can mean as we think through an idea or preview the responsibilities of the day. This intrapersonal communication increases the quality of our interpersonal communication.

We have all experienced silence when the elementary school teacher observed misbehavior in the classroom; she or he would simply stop talking, remaining silent until the class also got quiet. Silence thus can be used as a disciplinary tool.

Herman Melville said, "All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence."  Make your words have more meaning by using silence to show what you feel as you speak them.

Speak in shorter sentences to allow for more punctuation to stress certain words. Pause anytime there is a strong emotion attached. Stop at the end of a thought to allow the listener time to assimilate your idea and perhaps feel comfortable responding to your thought. Pause to emphasize a statistic or proper noun. When you pause, the listener will pay better attention. As Martin Farquhar Tupper stated, "Well-timed silence hath more eloquence than speech."

Calvin Coolidge was famous for his brevity of words and his silence. At a social gathering a lady said to President Coolidge, “I've made a bet with a friend that I can get you to say at least three words this evening. What do you say to that?"

Calvin Coolidge: "You lose."

Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. See additional articles and resources at To book Steve, call 800-727-6520 or email him through his website.

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *