By Suzanne Pflaum
No one shared. No one clicked. No one is talking.
Even among leading purpose-driven brands or ambitious social-impact campaigns, decision-makers tend to share a common assumption: No visible response equals no engagement. Right?
Not necessarily. We’ve become so vigilant (ahem, obsessed) about measuring transactional data, scalability and the profitability of a market disruption, that we’ve lost track of the quieter value of qualitative feedback. Too often, our social media culture regards the absence of clicks, likes or comments as an indicator of failure. But these actions don’t necessarily tell us about the strength of connection, commitment or trust.
This April, I attended a storytelling event that, ironically, has me thinking a lot about the power of silence.
Let me set the scene for you. The Muse Storytelling event, SEE (Story, Experience, Engagement), drew a couple hundred creatives from around the country for a day of multi-sensory celebration of story. The big idea: saturate our senses to challenge our definition of what stories can be—pushing past known formulas like “the Pixar method” and the “hero’s journey” arc.
Early into the day, I met Katie Davis, founder of Ponderosa and Thyme, who gathered 30 of us around a circular sunken foyer decorated with perhaps the largest floral installation I’ve ever seen—the scent of flowers filled the space. We took our seats, some of us forced to cram ourselves between strangers on benches, others opting for the floor. Katie greeted us with silence and a warm smile, her fiery red hair and bohemian attire adding rich visual texture to her intentionally set stage. She opened her talk with a request to the audience: introduce yourselves to the people on either side of you. Then, pass a basket of lavender around the circle, looking your neighbor in the eye as you exchange. Repeat.
As the basket did its job of silently breaking the ice, Katie shared her story, punctuated by music or an extended pause, to let a question sink in. At all times she was entirely vulnerable, not just with the emotional intimacy of the story she shared, but in the presence she offered to us, encouraging us to experience silently with her and each other. It all reminded me of a favorite Zen proverb, “It’s the silence between the notes that makes the music.”
While the rest of the conference was jam-packed with sensory overload, Katie’s talk resoundingly demonstrated the power of silence in creating engagement. Silence leaves space for contemplation, discomfort, reflection—a human space for the recipient to choose how to respond to the ideas offered.
What did this experience show me about engagement? Sure, qualitative results can’t (yet) populate a management dashboard, but if experience is indeed the most critical market differentiator of the future; if our customers are choosing brands based on tricky-to-quantify factors like shared purpose and trust, we need to up-the-ante on our commitment to interpreting qualitative experience, not just quantitative data.
A few weeks ago, Emma González, the final speaker at the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, DC, deliberately stopped speaking for six minutes and 20 seconds—the duration of active shooting inside Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. What made her silence so powerful was that it made the audience uncomfortable: “Is she okay? Is she too upset to speak? Is there something wrong with her?” At one point someone even came on to the stage to check on her. She was fine. She stood there, with vulnerability and strength, in front of half a million people, enabling a deep connection few of us watching her will ever forget. Her success can’t be measured with clicks or shares. Instead it will be measured over the coming months and years as the reflection of the audience during that pregnant pause—that silence—that created undeniable engagement.