Keeping Time

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“Time is a circus, always packing up and moving away.” Ben Hecht (Author and Screenwriter)

Teachers, speakers, and trainers are like musicians in that time is a fundamental element – and constraint – in our work. Every presentation or class is bound in time so we are driven to make the best use of that time. But time is not the enemy, for we make various uses of time to do our work.

Two uses of time come to mind here: busy time and empty time. Both are vitally important in their own way.

On e of the best pieces of advice I ever received from a senior trainer was this: never allow more than enough time to complete a workshop assignment. For example, if it’s likely to take a little under five minutes for a small group to list twelve ways a manager might try to motivate employees, then announce that they have four minutes to do the activity  – and c all time at exactly four minutes. Groups might not quite finish their first activity timed in this way, but you’d better believe they’ll work more efficiently and effectively in subsequent activities during that workshop. Their thinking will be better focused and they’ll produce more valuable results from their collaborations. And that’s the goal of doing group activities, isn’t it?

Empty time belongs to the student and audience member, but it’s controlled from the front of the room. Think of the genius in the way that great comedians like Jack Benny (“Your money or your life?” … “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.”) or Henny Youngman (“Take my wife. … Please!”) used pauses to heighten our anticipation for the punch line. Or the way that moments of quiet in a piece of music make us hunger for the next notes to fill the air. And when a gifted presenter makes us wait for a payoff line, the wait is the same as in comedy or music. For in that wait we’re making our minds more receptive for the message that we know will follow.

Beyond the pause for dramatic or comedic effect, though, there’s the systemic pause. By this I mean the kind of pause where you let your new idea sink in. Everyone needs time to process new ideas. They’re busy mapping your new idea against their own experience and learning. How does this new idea compare to what I already know? Does this change my understanding of my subject? How does this new idea fit into my world view?

Do you use time intentionally in your work? Have you looked through your material to find places where imposing silence will produce a certain effect? Do you regularly offer up systemic pauses to let your new ideas sink in, to allow for mental processing time?

Jack Benny, in fact actually said this about comedy: “It’s not so much knowing when to speak, but when to pause.” He also said, “Give me golf clubs, fresh air and a beautiful partner, and you can keep the clubs and the fresh air.” But I’ll forgive him for that heresy.

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