Everybody needs a little space. White space.

Everybody needs a little space. White space.
December 26, 2016 Beth Nyland

Here’s a little story from my life as a parent. A business lesson follows. I promise.

When my youngest was in first grade, during parent-teacher conferences, her teacher handed me a manila folder of completed assignments. I opened the file and found page after page of schoolwork, positively filled with colorful crayon doodles. Pink. Purple. Red. Blue. Yellow. No blank space in the margins, whatsoever.

I beamed, admiring my daughter’s passion to create (that’s my girl!).

But when my smiling eyes met the teacher’s, I noticed she didn’t share my positive response.

What could possibly be wrong with such colorful, creative expression, especially given that my child was completing the assignments and even getting all the answers right?

The problem? The teacher—my daughter’s target audience—was struggling to see and evaluate and respond to the work. There wasn’t even enough white space for a grade or smiley face.

Oh. Right. That is a drawback.

Flash forward to today. The same child is a sixth-grader who never stops talking. She may be tough to wake in the morning; but once she’s up, the chatter begins: what she did, what she’s doing, what she wants to do, what she can’t do, what she won’t do, what she heard, what she couldn’t hear, what she thinks, what she wants, what she dreams. It’s non-stop, running commentary of thought.

These aren’t quiet mutterings to self. She’s communicating out loud. She expects the rest of us to hear and care and remember.

But if she wants a response, she’s not getting any. Her messages come so fast and close together, I have no way to answer. Without a moment’s silence, I can’t cut through the noise to hear my own thoughts. She leaves no room for dialogue. So what happens?

I grow tired of listening. I get annoyed. I stop hearing. I snap.

And I’m her mother—one of the most patient, friendly audiences the child will ever know! I can’t help but wonder how her endless chatter lands on others who are less receptive.

So this week, my daughter and I discussed the value of white space—how artists use negative space to make images stand out, how publishers give us margins and breaks between paragraphs, how pauses are good for both speaker and listener.

I think she heard me. Time will tell. Meanwhile, you and I can apply this same lesson to our business communications.

As a person who communicates at work, are you talking too much?

If you’re filling all the space—whether page space or air space—with everything you want to say, what can you reasonably expect your target audience to do?

They’ll grow tired of listening. They’ll get annoyed. They’ll stop hearing. They might even snap.

All these responses fly in the face of our reasons for communicating. We want people to be aware of our messages, understand what we say, support our ideas, and take action in our favor. Getting results like these means people need time and space—white space—to think and act.

Here are five ways to improve your use of white space at work:

1. Use white space in conversation

Do you start spouting words the instant someone else stops speaking? This often happens when:

  • You’re nervous.
  • You’re trying to appear smart and prepared.
  • You’ve mentally composed your next comment and don’t want to forget your “lines.”

Guess what? Racing ahead is more likely to get you in trouble, especially when someone asks an unexpected question, raises a point that makes you angry, or challenges you to see things differently.

Don’t respond with rapid fire. Instead, pause. Use white space to make yourself look—and be—smart.

2. Use white space in speeches

Do you buy time or avoid silence by voicing empty syllables like “uh,” “so,” or “like”? You might do this without even realizing it. You might even use longer fillers, such as “at the end of the day” or “that being said.”

I’ve been in meetings where participants secretly counted how many times a leader used a pet filler phrase. They remembered and laughed about the tally. They didn’t hear the message.

Ask others if they notice you repeating anything that could become a distraction. Once you’re aware of your fillers, train yourself to replace them with thoughtful silence. Not only will you eliminate a distracting habit from your speaking style, you’ll gain valuable white space where you can collect your thoughts and listeners can gather theirs, too.

3. Use white space on the page

Do you pack documents and email messages from edge to edge and end to end? Walls of text are imposing. Readers Skimmers see them and run away. They don’t have time, energy, or desire to try that hard.

The hard work is up to you—the writer—to edit and format your message in small chunks that are easy for readers to pick up and use. Edit ruthlessly, so only the necessary words remain. Write short paragraphs. Leave generous space above and below and on either side.

4. Use white space on the screen

Do you fill slides with text-heavy bullet points, detailed data, and complex charts? If so, you’re letting your audience control the focus. When you speak in front of a cluttered screen, your audience chooses whether to listen or decipher your slide.

And don’t think you can use handouts as an excuse (“But I have to put all that information on the slides. They’ll want it as back-up.”). When you create crowded handouts, your reader chooses what to see and probably what to skip.

Decide what you want your audience to see or know first. Present that image or idea alone, against a field of generous white space. What do you want them to encounter next? Add that element with an animated build, or give it a slide of its own. Repeat until finished.

This approach may generate longer decks, but it’s almost sure to get you better results.

5. Use white space in campaigns

Do you communicate according to a rigid schedule—sending newsletters, holding meetings, hosting chats, organizing events, and conducting surveys to “stay in front” of an audience? Communication calendars are an asset for those of us who must connect with specific groups over time and through various methods.

But beware the overwhelm. Consider just how much communication your target audience can and will reasonably manage (and remember: you’re not the only voice vying for attention).

Talking all the time doesn’t keep you top of mind. Good stories do. And good stories have white space inside and out. Think of your communication calendar as an ongoing, unfolding story, with white spaces where people can do their day jobs, live their lives, and maybe even recall the insightful/useful/inspiring/touching/funny ideas you’ve shared.

* * *

In a world so saturated with sights and sounds and other stimulation, silence may seem stark and scary. But quiet pauses belong in fruitful conversations. Your audience needs them, and so do you. Plan them into your communications.


Photo credit: Julia Kay via flickr

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