Right now I am on an airplane. I’m flying home at 20,000 feet from Kuopio, Finland. I’m decompressing. Imagine a town dropped right in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Imagine being surrounded by a thousand miles of flat and nondescript landscape with nothing but seemingly endless trees and lakes… then more trees and lakes. It’s beautiful. It’s tranquil and peaceful. But perhaps a bit overlooked by time? Unchanged by the hectic pace of big cities and modern life?
I just led a 2-day communication workshop for a group of tech entrepreneurs; preparing them to pitch to investors. I call it “The Voice of Influence”. Listening to Finnish entrepreneurs pitch, you would think it is a nation of Steven Hawkins voice impersonators with monotone, deadpan, and flat voices. But listen carefully and you will discover a real warmth underlying the cold exterior.
What they taught me is that the Finns have a huge tolerance for silence. Yes, silence. Perhaps more than any other European people, the Finns are completely comfortable with long periods of silence in speech. Many other European cultures would be climbing the walls in protest after 2-3 seconds of silence, yet the Finns are completely relaxed and comfortable when absolutely nothing is being said. It’s uncanny.
One of the fundamentals of Executive Presence is teaching business leaders to insert more pauses into their speech. Pauses are powerful. Pauses place emphasis on what was just spoken. Pauses allow an audience to catch-up to a speaker and to digest the full meaning of the words they have just heard. Pauses signal authority and importance. When I coach executives, I almost always have to get them to practice inserting pauses in order to obtain more “gravitas”.
But not the Finnish people. Almost as a national trait, they love and embrace the silence. And as they have taught me, they have a great tolerance for it. Perhaps there is much for us others to learn here?
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If you want to see a crazy example of how one powerful speaker uses silence, then watch this YouTube video where prime minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the UN General Assembly in October 2015. He got angry. So then he just stopped talking for over 45 seconds. Yes, 45 seconds of complete silence. It made a powerful statement. What can you learn from this?