As an aspiring guitarist I would devour every bit of information I could get my hands on, and I listened to anyone who had skill beyond my own. I remember reading about an accomplished guitarist recounting how he had learned to tastefully play blues guitar. He explained that in the beginning he filled the moments with every note he could play, without any regard for phrasing. One day, he was playing guitar along with a B.B. King record (yeah, it was a while ago).

bbkingThis guitarist recalled how he was playing everywhere in the song that B.B. King wasn’t. He stopped and began to listen – to really listen.  He realized that King used silence just as much as he used his guitar. Both were necessary for King to achieve his trademark style and sound. Naturally, the guitarist began to adjust his own playing to respect and utilize silence.

This was a great lesson for me as a young guitarist: shut up every now and then and let the music breathe – don’t let the instrument get in the way of the music! It was an even greater lesson for me as I began to get involved in teaching and public speaking. All too often newly minted public speakers feel the need to fill every moment with words. We worry that if there is a moment of silence our listeners will stomp out in protest. So we fill those moments with uhs, uhmms, and other assorted mumbles (the trail off is a real popular one). But silence can be a great punctuator. It can help make a point. It can also provide our listeners a chance to marinate on what they are hearing, and a moment to think critically, and consequently offer a real opportunity for an audience to embrace what is being taught.

The wise in heart will be called understanding, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness (Prov 16:21).

Those who know me or have been in my classes know that I am not fond of homiletics as a major priority in teaching – instead, I prefer that we be excellent in our preparation and content. Dynamics in delivery are not nearly as important as the message itself. Like B.B. King teaches us – don’t let the instrument get in the way of the message. Still, God gave us some fantastic tools to help us communicate with others, and we shouldn’t ignore them. Our choice of words can say quite a lot. But we shouldn’t be afraid of silence – in fact, we need to become very comfortable with it. Silence is words, too.

It just sounds different.