Another podcasting series for you this week. This article is aimed primarily at podcasters who invest lots of time in editing their shows — however it has a few takeaways for anyone who thinks deeply about communicating with other human beings.

In editing literally hundreds of podcast episodes over the past few years, I’ve thought a lot about the way in which words come out of peoples’ mouths. That includes the space people leave between words and sentences too. This series of articles includes both advice & unanswered questions about capturing & editing speech…

This article is Part 1 of The Art Of Speaking series. It is titled “Leave a Little Space In The Conversation”.

Terrified of Space

When I first started to work on my own podcast I was terrified of space. Not consciously, but you can hear it in my earlier shows — I spent hours chopping away ‘space’ from every conversation I had.

The conversations were meant to be informal, you can hear that, but I’d still go over each one in the editing room to cut out every pause in conversation that lasted more than a second or two. I’d piece that conversation together in this way that was (in my mind) optimally efficient. Remove all silence, ask question, get answer, immediately move on to the next idea. Always keep things moving. Always keep audience engaged. Sometimes use music to break up different trains of thought, but never ‘space’.

Recently, I listened back to a few of those earlier episodes. After one or two of them, my ears were exhausted.

Too much

The thing is, generally, all of those are good rules. You do want to keep your audience engaged. You do want to keep things moving forward. However, I think I was over doing those things because I was insecure about my podcast being boring.

The problem with that, of course, was that someone would say something sort of interesting in those early shows and before a listener had time to reflect on it or even let it sink in, I was already bombarding them with more talking. When I listened back recently, it was fun, it seemed relatively well-cut, but it all just washed over me in a big wave of ‘too much’ (which, in my opinion, ends up being just as boring).

In regular conversation, no one talks like this, or at least if they do, I personally have a hard time holding meaningful conversation with them. Too much. So much that all of it stops meaning anything. Space is something we use in conversation as part of communicating the words we are saying, whether consciously or subconsciously. And everyone is very subconsciously sensitive to that when listening to others.

When I hear silence in someone’s story it instantly makes me wonder, “Wait, why are they pausing? What is this person thinking?”. I want to figure out what is going on inside that head of theirs. That act is participatory and really engaging. “Are they having a hard time talking about this? Why would they have a hard time talking about this?”. Again, as a listener, it let’s me fill in some of the blanks.

It’s like white space on a canvas, or a slow pan in a film — it takes confidence to let the absence of immediate stimulation communicate what you are trying to say. It takes guts to not fill up the conversation and leave room for your audience. Young painters fill up the canvas in the same way young podcast editors fill up all the gaps in their timeline.

Sit In The Air For A Second

Again, even in regular conversation, I respond more strongly to people who give space to what they say. Maybe not the best example (if you know the film and how the relationship plays out), but there is a reason Mrs. Robinson’s seduction works. In this scene, she says bold things and just lets them hang there for a second. Mrs. Robinson knows how to leave space in a conversation. Mrs. Robinson has her hangups but Mrs. Robinson is a confident, confident lady. She isn’t afraid to let things sit in the air for a second. She lets Dustin Hoffman’s character wonder if she is seducing him before she makes it abundantly clear. I’m not saying seducing people is the way to a good podcast but she’s got something right.

The other obvious example is Don Draper. Again, if you know the show, he has his own issues as well, but look at all the things ‘space’ is saying in this scene.

I’m not talking about how to win friends and influence people, the focus here is simply to point out how effective ‘space’ can be as a tool for communicating.

Of course, I’m curious to hear any of your thoughts on this, but the take away here is not to be terrified of space.

Slow down.

Leave room.

Space can be good, especially if you are still cutting your teeth. If you listen to your podcast and every bit of silence makes you cringe, you are probably listening as a producer rather than as a listener. If a good point gets made, let it sit, give it airtime, let listeners soak it up and decide if they like it or not.

This is a fine line to walk, because you absolutely can have too much space.That can be even worse. We all know people who say horribly inane things and give them a false weight to make themselves seem profound. That drives me bonkers.

So, like most things, it’s a tightrope walk. There is no quick fix to learn the right balance. I absolutely had to go through the process to even begin to understand that space is important. Get it wrong until you get it right — I am still always working it out in a pretty clumsy way.

Listening back though, I do wish someone had given me a bit of a shake in those early shows and said, “don’t be afraid to leave a little space in that conversation”.