That was the heart of Emma González’s speech at March for Our Lives on March 24. After a introductory remarks, she named the 17 dead and the small experiences in life they would never partake of again. Then she stood, silent, for the remainder of six minutes and 20 seconds—the time it took for the gunman to kill and then escape at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. The Washington Post called it “the wordless act that moved a nation”:
The absence of language, the extended pause for contemplation, remains a rare thing in public discourse, and even rarer onstage. A moment of silence is the ritualized form of respect we employ on many occasions to mark tragedy, but it’s usually only a moment. González’s silence was an act that felt, in its way, radical. It was as if she dropped the mic — yet a mic was still in front of her.
The length of the silence is what made it more than rote. Long silences challenge the senses and the mind, reflected in an art critic’s visual and auditory hallucinations within a “supersilent anechoic chamber” on exhibit at the Guggenheim in New York.
Silence in these political and artistic contexts operates as rhetorical Silence. On a more pragmatic note, addressing silence with a lowercase “s,” Bret Rappaport recently published “Talk Less”: Elloquent Silence in the Rhetoric of Lawyering, 67 J. Legal Ed. 286 (2017). He quotes Che Guevara:
Silence is argument carried out by other means.
When silence is done correctly, it brings a “participatory dynamic between speaker and audience” in which the audience fills in the unspoken premise of an argument. In his article Rappaport goes on to describe background and techniques of silence. He lists three kinds of silence: simple silence as when you stop speaking so someone else can take a turn, silencing another by not allowing them to speak, and the “eloquent silence.” The article focuses on the latter. Silence can be eloquent when it violates expectations, leads the audience to understand a shared meaning, and is understood by the audience as directed at them. (Here he cites Purdue professor Barry Brummett.)
Rappaport goes on to show that silence enhances thinking by moving past quick, intuitive reactions to the world. Awkward silences can also yield better results in negotiations because the counter-party feels compelled to fill the silence, perhaps to their detriment. Silence also functions as flattery and, since by definition it means not talking, it reduces the risk of unintentional revelations.
Rappaport breaks down examples from movies and well-known trials (O.J. Simpson of course). He says early on that his argument for lawyers is remedial: silence as a “lawyer’s tool [is] one too often unappreciated or outright ignored.” For lawyers who wish to become more powerful public speakers or achieve better strategic results by saying less, I recommend Rappaport’s article.
I also recommend closing all other tabs, notifications, and alerts to watch the full-length version of Emma González’s speech at March for Our Lives.