When You're Brainstorming, Know the Two Kinds of Silence

A Pause Can Be Awkward, or It Can Become An Opportunity to Think

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An old friend who was an auditor with a major accounting firm once taught me a classic auditing trick: if you want people to tell you more, stare at them in silence. This makes most people feel so uncomfortable that they will immediately look to fill the air with something, anything. This is an auditor's dream.

But we don't have to be defenseless against silence. In fact, we can use it positively. In brainstorms, silence can really help if we can become more comfortable with a few moments of quiet among co-workers.

Two kinds of silence occur in meetings -- awkward "I don't know what to say" silence (the auditors' variety), and "I'm thinking about this problem" silence. The "thinking silence" should be absolutely welcome in your brainstorm. It's completely different from the awkward silence that auditors love. That kind of silence can stir up a bunch of unnecessary noise in a brainstorm and get in the way of presenting ideas and solving problems.

There's a big difference between noise and the sharing of "bad" ideas. Bad ideas should be welcome in every brainstorm, as it's always healthy to explore the things you know you can't do. One person's bad idea can launch another person's brilliance. A bad idea can be broken in half, explored and built upon. But noise is different. This comes from discomfort with silence, and the need to fill it. Noise includes the unnecessary re-reading of the brief aloud, re-reading from the list of ideas, and anything else the noise maker can drum up to fill the void. Stop these when they occur, and you'll break the habit of going there in the first place.

Quiet should serve as necessary think time, time to use the visual and mental imagination and explore. Co-workers who have brainstormed frequently know this and learn to feed off of the silence.

Don't get me wrong. A brainstorm shouldn't feel like a meeting in a library. Most great sessions are filled with laughter, shouting and fun. But inevitably, there are dry moments, when everything comes to a pause. It's these moments where you see great teams click, and new teams fill the air with noise.

It's OK to think. To draw. To browse reference material. The ideas that follow stretch the group, explore the challenge in a deeper manner and ultimately, see their way to execution. This is where great ideas are born.

Mastering just the right balance between thinking time, bad ideas and raucous exploration of genius is the secret to conducting the best brainstorms. Thinking silence can be golden.

Darryl Ohrt is a former punk rocker, professional internet surfer and executive creative director at Carrot Creative in NYC. He's one of the three super-hot bloggers that make up AdVerve, and admits to knowing just enough about the creative business to be dangerous. Keep your distance.
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