You may have noticed a shift in the way documents and emails have been formatted. Once upon a time, the mighty indent ruled the start of every paragraph. Now the indent has been largely supplanted by an empty line.
I am not entirely sure where or why this trend began. At first, it seemed confined to online writing – blog posts and webpages. Perhaps an empty space was more popular because it was easier on the eyes. Maybe it was because if you hit the “tab” button while writing, you’d suddenly find yourself inadvertently toggling some doomsday button or at least accidentally pressing the “send” command too soon (which could have been just as catastrophic, really).
Either way, the empty line crept in to other documents beyond the blogosphere. Now it has taken a place in our print media and formal offline documents as well.
The empty line has a distinct advantage over the indent: it creates white space. Our eyes like white space; it gives them a moment to rest, helps set ideas off more clearly, and gives us a better visual cue when we are moving from one thought to the next. It gives our brain the visual space to think and process what it is seeing.
White space exists in other media as well – art and design make ample use of it in everything from advertising layouts to interior decoration. White space is restful and gives our brain space to think.
It can also be readily used in speaking. Silence is a speaker’s white space. So many people fear the sound of silence when giving a talk, but in reality it is one of our most overlooked tools. Just like the white space between paragraphs gives our eyes a break, silence gives our ears a rest as well.
Silence allows the listener’s brain a chance to catch up with what they are hearing and lets them process the information coming at them. It gives the speaker a whole rasher of expressive power. We can use it to create humour, to build tension, to relax our listeners, to make them sit up and pay attention, and to add additional dignity or seriousness to a weighty idea.
Just as with art, design, and the layout of a good website, white space in a speech is far from mere emptiness. It is an active, living part of our message. Rather than seeing it as void to be filled with more content, view it as a tool to help enhance the rest of your words.
Claude Debussy described music as being “the space between the notes.” In the case of speaking, I believe that meaning is the space between the words.
Give your words some white space. Make the silence yours. It will amplify everything you say.