Trust Tip 45: The Three-Second Rule

Some years ago I got some great coaching from Patricia Fripp about introducing a speech.

“Don’t start with ‘hello, glad to be here’ and all that,” she said. “Instead, start by standing motionless at mid-stage for what will seem like an eternity.”

“Stand still, and wait—until every eye is upon you, wondering whether you’ve gone catatonic from stage-fright. Then launch directly into the first line of your opening story—‘there I was…’ for example.”

I couldn’t imagine doing it.  It felt way too contrived, hokey.  But I had an upcoming speech outside my home country and industry.  I figured, nobody will know me here, time to try it!

The emcee introduced me.  I walked to center stage.  And stood.  And stood.  For an eternity (3 seconds).  The room went silent.  And as the first three words finally came out of my mouth, I realized instantly Fripp was right.

The 3-second rule works in public speaking because it compels our attention. We are fascinated by a speaker who is silent—a bit like the painted statue mimes in tourist cities.

We watch intently to catch the statue-mime in the act of moving.  We listen intently to hear what the silent speaker will say.  3 seconds about does it.

But the 3-second rule is not jus for speaking.  It works in conversations, when you want to draw the other person out, establish dialogue, forge a legitimate connection.

You already know to allow pregnant pauses, let them fill the empty space, don’t give in to your desire to talk. But you feel dumb sitting silently after your client has said something. So, after what you think is a long time, you puncture the discomfort by saying something.  But it wasn’t long enough

Are you really practicing the idea?  Here, “fake it ‘til you make it’ applies.

Try timing someone else in that situation. I find they cave in after about 2 seconds, and begin through body language or direct speaking to puncture the discomfort of silence.

See if you can live in the silence for that last second.  Without moving.  Staring straight at the client.  Not lost in thought, your eyes cast upward, but looking directly into the client’s eyes, awaiting curiously—for real—to hear what they are going to say.

Quietly count, “one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand,” while you mentally send a message to the client, “Yes, and please tell me more about that?”

Give it the full 3-count. They’re worth that extra second, aren’t they?

7 replies
  1. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    For me and the folks I coach, this state is "presence",  a state where we learn and practice how to be "in our body", a practice and exercise we refer to as "sensing our arms and legs", for this period of time; so we’re not in our mind counting, or even "thinking"…just breathing into our belly, relaxed, focused in and on our body…almost as a conscious meditative state, which brings a wonderful and "real" state of peace and relaxation, not unlike cartain states of "flow" or  unlike Eugene Gendlin’s state of "focus".  

    The ideal we work toward is focusing "inward" with 80% of our attention and focusing "outward" with the other 20%, all the time, to stay focused, to be present to our experience.

    Initially, folks say it’s impossible to listen, be present, etc., when we are so focused on ourself, but this is an ego-based reaction and misunderstanding of a practice that doesn’t "compute" with our ego mind, our so-called "logical" mind, a misunderstandig by those who’ve never tried it. 

    The truth is that greater creativity, awareness, intuitive experiences, ability to listen and recall, and less ego-driven behavior, emanate from this place of presence and focus…when and where we’re not being caught up in so much mental activity. Hard to fathom in a Western cuture where "thinking" and bombarding one’s self with incessant mental activity are relied on so heavily…one reason why, for so many, "silence", even three seconds’ worth, can be so deafening (and scary).  

  2. Merv Giles
    Merv Giles says:

    we truly underestimate the power of slience in presentations and conversation, getting comfortable with that silence rather than filling the "silent void" is a significant step, as with all great presentations it requires practice, you can do this in every conversations everyday, apply practice and get comfortable with the power of silence



  3. Shaula Evans
    Shaula Evans says:

    Charlie, here’s another tip that makes the 3 Second Rule *much* easier to apply.

    It comes from Michael Shurtleff, if I recall correctly, and it is an old actor standby called "I have a secret."

    If you are standing in front of an audience (or audient) for 3 sends, and inside you’re saying to yourself "I’m uncomfortable! This is eternity! I feel like an idiot!" — odds are, some of your audience is going to pick up on your internal monologue (via body language and other tells), and instead of a pregnant pause they’ll pick up on dead air.

    Instead, stand there and tell yourself "I have a secret."  If you make a specific choice about your secret, it is even more powerful.  For example, "I’m have a tip that will improve your morale and make you more money," or "I can’t wait to show you how to save your marriage," or whatever it really is.

    You can try it in an empty room as an excercise for yourself.  The difference is tremendous: instead of slumping, you crackle; instead of sagging, you sparkle.  Without saying a word, you can convey to your audience that you have something so fascinating to convey that they’ll sit on the edge of their seats and hold their breath while they wait for you to spit it out.

    Actors live for that feeling.  (So do audiences, from the other side of it.)

    Of course, it requires convincing your toughest audience: yourself.  

    But if you can fake out yourself, you wind up not having to fake it to your audience.

    And then you can really have fun with that powerful 3 seconds.

  4. GP
    GP says:

    Saw this as a fellow Carnival contributor from this week.  The 3 second rule title grabbed me since they use that term in horse training alot.  If the horse is displaying a bad habit or behavior, the general concensus is if you dont react with a correction within 3 seconds, they wont associate the  two incidents. 

    3 seconds is no time and and an eternity

    GP  in Montana

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    proxy list says:

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Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] about the three-second rule of silence (yours), from our friends at Trusted Advisor Associates, or read about storytelling as a way to build a […]

  2. […] fact or quote they were after the whole time. Charles H. Green of Trusted Advisor Associates wrote in a classic blog post that he discovered another application of the 3 Seconds of Silence rule, in public speaking. He […]

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