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Monday, February 14, 2011

Silence is Golden

I came across a news item this past weekend that thoroughly surprised me. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has gone four complete terms, dating back to 2006, without uttering one word in any of the cases heard before the land's highest court. Not a word. Not a peep.
Rather, Justice Thomas prefers to sit back in his chair, rub his eyes, stare at the ceiling and listen to the proceedings. In the past 40 years no other Supreme Court justice has gone an entire term without saying something, yet Clarence Thomas is likely to make it five straight years with this coming session.
Some observers say Thomas appears bored. Other say he looks disinterested and almost irritated that he has to sit behind the bench day after day listening to the most complicated and challenging cases in jurisprudence.
Thomas, in his defense, says that when cases are invited to present before the Supreme Court the justices, at least from his perspective, should be quiet and listen to what both sides of the case have to say, rather than interject with numerous questions or insert asides that reflect personal opinion.
Whatever his reason may be for remaining silent, Justice Thomas may be onto something.
All too often in life, and especially in our business of public relations, people feel compelled to fill every empty space with words. I've been in meetings where high-powered PR execs speak in long, rambling sentences filled with so much jargon and hyperbole that when they finally do take a break to catch their breath, one is left numb, searching to find a single nugget of actual wisdom or useful advice.
It may be that many PR pros feel the need to talk incessantly because they believe that if they remain silent their clients may wonder if they have anything useful to contribute. Sure, there are times when a spirited colloquy is required to provide necessary counsel, but all too often PR people talk without really having anything important to say.
Years ago, I had the privilege to work at the PR agency Copithorne & Bellows. One of the aspects of the principals' approach to business that made the agency one of the most successful firms in the industry was their ability to listen. "If you ask the right questions and then listen, clients will inevitably outline their current situation and guide you toward an ultimate solution," they preached. And it worked.
Over the years I've learned to ask probing questions to clients, actively listen to how they respond, and then play back for them what they said intermixed with my personal observations. Nine times out of 10, this approach leads to a workable solution to almost any communications challenge faster and more effectively than coming to a meeting armed with preconceived ideas of what a client needs to do, and then bombard them with advice that they didn't ask for, and most likely don't need.
What's your experience? Do you have horror stories of PR people who just can't stop talking? Have you found value in listening? We're waiting to hear from you.


  1. Mr. Jursa:

    Don't get me started. One of my greatest pet peeves is the need of practitioners - indeed EVERYBODY - to fill void of silence with words. I instruct all my junior PR practitioners to practice using well placed silence as the most effective tool in making a point. I often use Miles Davis as an example to illustrate the point. Listen to Miles during his "cool" days and you will hear how he brilliantly uses the sparseness of sound to weave together a brilliant and beautiful solo. My God, he could have filled these voids with uncountable notes, but have said so much less. Sparsity of sound when combined with well placed, heartfelt and forward moving "notes" is the best way to be heard in a noise cluttered environment. Hell, even Plato knew the value and impact of silence when he described attunement of a tuned lyre in the Phaedo as "something invisible, silent, lovely, and divine..."

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