This summer at SCBWI National conference, I was one of the nearly 3,000 attendees who was blown away by Sherman Alexie’s opening speech. It wasn’t only the power of his message, or the skill with which he chose his words, nor even his brilliant timing.
No, what struck me like a two by four to the forehead was his masterful use of white space. This man had no fear of letting the room fall silent. In fact, he not only let the room grow silent, but he let that silence build and build until it was nearly bursting with expectation. Then he would step into that void and boom! Connect.
Or conversely, he would say something slyly humorous, then patiently wait for us to catch up to him. You could hear the faint click of our synapses as they sparked, lagging a few seconds behind the speaker, then our laughter would catch up with his words. Or else he would say something funny, then wait for us all to realize the galling pain behind the humor. Clearly, this was a master at work.
And one thing I adore about masters is how we can learn from them.
For me, when I speak, I scramble to fill up every second with something witty, pithy, or meaningful. I experience moments of silence as extreme pressure, a reminder that the onus is on me to produce—and to carry everyone along with me. My presentation’s silent moments are fraught with panic. Sometimes I’m even afraid to be silent long enough to take an actual breath.
But Alexie’s presentation showed me the error of my ways. White space could be wielded as effectively as the most brilliant prose, and to equally devastating effect.
What you leave out is as important as what you leave in.
And really, this applies to all aspects of our writing careers; from our prose, to our presentations, to our blogs.
White space is not merely blank. Its existence creates the balance or emphasis. Without the judicious application of white space, we are in danger of creating something that is far too akin to static.
White space gives depth, adds layers, it creates room to breathe.
I knew all this from a design standpoint, but I had never, ever seen it put to such effective use in a speaking format before.
But white space is not for the faint-hearted. Your speech must be extraordinarily well written. Just a long pause between sentences won’t do; the silence must say something. In a presentation, white space creates drama, it can foreshadow what’s coming next, or leave something to the imagination for the participants to fill in. You want to be sure the meaning in your words will support the weight of all that white space.
But I also wonder if it might not be a chicken/egg thing. Does the importance of your words allow you to use white space? Or does the white space give meaning to your words? Both, probably.
I think that as introverts, we are especially drawn to white space. It connects directly to our souls, feeds our aesthetic need for silence and room to think and breathe. And since it speaks so directly to who we are, it makes sense for us to consider using it as part of our communication style...
Here’s wishing you lots of white space in the next few days as you navigate the joy and noise of the Thanksgiving holiday!
We also want to sneak in a quick announcement of our contest winner from last week.
Laura Salas is our winner for her inspired quote entry. She wins a copy of Rebecca Stead's WHEN YOU REACH ME. Laura, email Mary and she will get that prize out to you!