Today I’d like to talk about the unspeakable. The unheard of. The blank canvas voice overs paint on:
S I L E N C E
It’s one of the things we don’t have enough of in this loud world. We voice overs spend thousands of dollars to achieve it through Whisperbooths, Studiobricks cabins, and all sorts of isolation materials and special construction.
Makers of microphones and other audio equipment build expensive anechoic chambers isolated from outside noise so that nothing can leak in, and they are often floating on special mounts to prevent any unwanted noise or vibration from getting through. Here’s one such room:
Most of us are no longer used to silence. As referenced in the video, some people get quite uncomfortable in an anechoic chamber and have to leave.
It’s a sign of our times that we have to create these artificial environments because the real thing no longer exists. With the loss of true silence, we’ve lost something fundamental and something beneficial to our existence. As I was researching this blog post, I discovered that silence may help our health in several ways, including:
- lowering blood pressure
- improving concentration and focus
- calming racing thoughts
- stimulating brain growth
- reducing cortisol
- stimulating creativity
- improving insomnia
- encouraging mindfulness
I often joke that if I had an audio track with silence, I’d turn it all the way up!
UNDER THE STARS
The only time I’ve experienced something close to absolute silence was when I spent the night in the Sahara dessert. It was just me, my wife, our Bedouin guide, and a couple of camels under the most beautiful starry sky I’ve ever seen. It was so quiet that I could hear my blood rush, my heart beat, and track a snake slithering in the sand.
As impactful as words and music can be, true silence can be totally overwhelming.
When we’re speaking, silence can be a very powerful tool in our communication. Leonardo da Vinci famously said:
“Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.”
When we’re in conversation, silence is an indication that we’re listening. We let the other person speak without interruption. As a result, he or she feels heard and respected. This builds trust.
Influential people are influential because they are trusted. When you analyze the way they speak, you’ll notice that leaders tend to speak s l o w e r to increase the impact of what they are saying. People who sound rushed are often perceived as not being in control.
Another “trick” is to pause before making an important point or key phrase, to emphasize what’s coming and create expectation.
“My fellow Americans (pause). Today, I have good news that will impact millions of hard-working people (pause). I know many of you have been waiting for this for a very long time (pause). Believe me, I feel your pain (pause) and after many months of hard work (pause) I am please to announce the following (pause).”
This technique is also know as “the pregnant pause” which is a way to create anticipation.
Silence can also be uncomfortable when you leave things hanging that need to be resolved. Imagine a TV doctor in some soap opera who says:
“I’m afraid I have some bad news…. You better sit down for this…..” followed by an unbearable silence (and a commercial break).
Silence also creates separation and opportunity. It can separate the parts of a script into bite-size pieces to increase understanding and retention. Since listeners cannot see the division of a text into paragraphs, our silences serve as guideposts to the structure of the script.
When we as narrators are quiet, we give the listener an opportunity to take in the information before we move on.
Being quiet gives the other person an opportunity to speak. This can be particularly useful in negotiations. Not speaking leaves people guessing since you’re not putting all your cards on the table. Sales people will tell you:
“Whoever speaks first loses.”
I think that’s an oversimplification, but what may happen is that the other party becomes uncomfortable and starts talking, revealing useful information that can help you negotiate a better deal.
During my days as a broadcast journalist I often used this technique to my advantage when dealing with CEO’s who didn’t want to share information that would make them look bad. When you’re live on the air, the unwritten rule is that there can be no silences. Otherwise people think there’s something wrong with their radio.
So, during a live broadcast where I was grilling some pompous captain of industry about his missteps, I started off with:
“So, are YOU going to tell our listeners what’s going on, or shall I?” followed by the longest and most painful pause in history.
Eventually the silence became so unbearable that the guy started to speak, and he confessed what was going on. Had I spoken first, the bad news would have come from me, and the CEO could have contested my version of events. Now it came straight from the horse’s mouth, which gave it way more weight.
So, silence is way more than the absence of sound. If you’re a parent, I’m sure you can appreciate the silence when all kids are finally asleep, or maybe you’re getting worried when your newborn suddenly stops making noises.
But for voice overs there’s a special type of silence we purposely add to all our recordings. I’m talking about a few seconds of room tone to give the audio engineer something to work with. Adding some room tone shows you’re a real pro.
THE SOUND OF SILENCE
Now, for musicians, silence has a special significance. Composer Eric Whitacre describes it as follows:
“Silence has texture, it has gravity, it has weight, it’s liquid. And I find even when I’m conducting silences I that have composed, I conduct them with rubato.
Silence is this thing to be shaped. It’s alive, and every note of rest I have written as a composer is designed to be performed that way. Not just as a placeholder between sound, but as a living, breathing thing.
For me, the silence is the principal building block to music and it’s the thing that makes it come to life.”
It’s even better when you hear Eric say the words. Watch this, and you’ll understand why:
By the way, the video above is taken from Facebook. It may not be visible to everyone. Even though Eric Whitacre is referring to music, I feel that his words apply to the spoken word as well, especially since so many of his works are settings of poems (see below).
As narrators, we are the shapers of silence. We give words (and moments of silence) texture, gravity, and weight. It’s our job to let the text breathe and infuse it with meaning. And by the way, it’s also what separates us from synthetic/AI voices where every sound and every pause is identical (unless the pauses are programmed to be different).
As voice overs, it’s ironic that we often get paid per word, but those words would be meaningless without the silences that separate them.
So, let me end this celebration of silence with a beautiful demonstration of what Eric Whitacre was talking about. One of my favorite vocal ensembles, VOCES8 sings his setting of “A Boy and a Girl.” Each phrase is allowed to resonate in the space and is separated by silence.
Joe Dawson says
I’ve been reading you for years Paul. Totally immersed by every single topic you cover; this one on “silence” especially resonates. What a pro; you speak so well for the rest of us trying to eek out a living in the world of voiceovers.
Paul Strikwerda says
First of all, thank you for being such a loyal reader, Joe! Even though we don’t know each other personally, I feel we are connected. Writing things like a story about silence gives my joy and a sense of purpose. Being able to share it with so many makes it even better. Wishing you tranquil times!
Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt says
As a writer, controlling the pace – and how a reader ‘hears’ the story in their head – by how we write, the pauses and slowdowns are critical.
I rarely go back to change a word or a phrasing, when writing novels, but I may go back to change the formatting and the spacing and the punctuation – to get the silences right.
Paul Strikwerda says
The lost art of… punctuation. I’m glad it’s still alive!
Marissa L Ampon says
Beautifully written and crafted, with the videos in the appropriate spots. Thank you for writing this piece (pun intended). I enjoyed how you evoke that need to let a script breathe with the right amount of room tone. Eric’s explanation just gave me the “feel good” chills (is the word for this, “exhilarating”?☺️) I get this same feeling from head to toe when I feel good about how I read a VO script. I, too, enjoy reading your blogs when I get a chance. BRAVA💯!!!
Paul Strikwerda says
That’s so sweet, Marissa! Thanks for reading my writings. Our job is all about storytelling, and I love being able to have a voice behind the mic, and in front of my computer.