Sometimes when I’m reading an article or book, I take a moment in the middle of a paragraph to think about what I’m reading. Sometimes I’ll even read good a paragraph twice. It’s like my brain needs a moment to organize and process the information it’s acquiring. But when we listen to a spoken story, we can’t necessarily take that pause when we need it. As writers and producers of spoken stories, we have to anticipate those moments when our audience will need a moment to think about things, and give it to them. These are the pauses that give the audience space to make meaning, to move from witnessing the story to understanding the story.
Or, in the words of the wonderful Ira Glass, “An image will stay with you a little longer if we put in more of a pause.”
A great story by Snap Judgment shows us how powerful the pause can be. Jayne Larson, an actor and producer from Beverly Hills, spends a few weeks as a chauffeur to princesses from Saudi Arabia. Larson’s story is told in short vignettes. Each sketch details a scene, a character (a princess!), a bit of action, then finishes with a reflective moment, where Larson tells us what she learned or how she was affected by the event that just took place.
At 4:45 Larson begins a sketch about driving a young princess through the campus of UCLA. I recommend giving a careful listen to this vignette. Pay attention to the use of tiny pauses that give emphasis to particular images and reflections and how those pauses create opportunities to absorb and reflect.
An experienced storyteller knows when to pause for emphasis. But with some interviews, you might not get the pauses where you want them. The good news is that we live in the digital age, and if you need a pause where there is none, one can easily be dropped in. You can move your pauses around.
There is one small catch, which is that you can’t just use silence to fill those pauses. If you do, it will call a lot of attention to itself, distracting the listener from the story. You have to insert the particular silence of the room, the microphone, and the equipment that you used (and maybe, as in the case of this story, some music for mood and emphasis). Before you start your interview, record a few seconds of ambient sound. Then when you edit your story, you can cut and paste this ambient sound into your story, and in turn expand certain events or magnify moments of reflection.
It doesn’t take much. Just a second here and there. A purposeful pause can set the world of your story apart, and your listeners at ease.
Featuring Jayne Larson, produced by Anna Sussman
Episode 403 of Snap Judgment
Note: Thanks to Ira Glass for Radio Tip Number 7