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Roger Lee

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How can we use awkward pauses (which could be good) to generate creativity?

Stefon Harris's presentation, for me, was a revelation about the inhibitor of creativity, which is the fear of making a mistake. I think this is the dominant model where children loses their courage to be creative, especially in Asian culture where there is a mental disease of The One True Way of doing things.

In my presentations, I realize I have been interrupted by other people's cell phones a few times. Looking back on it, I react badly by calling attention to the person rather than being mentally flexible and use those unwanted and unplanned interruption as a way to re-engage the audience after the mental break off.

My idea is to ask TEDsters to contribute a list of professional interruptions or professional "mistakes" and how we can use those awkward pauses (which could be good) to generate creativity?

Topics: creativity
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  • Dec 23 2011: There was an entire historical period dedicated to awkward pauses (among other things): the Romantic period. Eventually, this lead to the idea of a sort of "suspension" of time and meter that you see with Debussy. The "awkward pause" became a part of the music. John Cage blew this idea up in extremes in his piece 4'33", where the music IS the awkward silence.

    It's easy to do in music; harder to do in the rest of life unless you become a Himalayan monk :) But lets say for a moment that you're in a meeting and there's an awkward pause: embrace it. When you do, so does everyone else. Take the opportunity to just think for a moment, and people think you're deep and contemplative. And who knows, maybe you are. :) Who says pauses have to be "awkward?"
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    Dec 22 2011: We can't. What do you think we live in a comic book or something?
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    Dec 21 2011: I think it's interesting that you referenced childhood and a culture of rigid guidelines for behavior. Personally I feel that our childhood education should stress adaptability. Confidence is a major factor in overcoming the fear of mistakes. But alone it cannot give us success. We can pat children on the back and hand them trophies for participation in order to instill confidence. Yet that merely creates a generation that will gladly march off a cliff with confidence. It almost defeats it's own purpose because if the fall doesn't obliterate that confidence, they will merely march off the next one. And if we instill that confidence with the rigid behavioral structure, we have a society that is so opposed to change that despite the potential good of any new idea, they cannot easily accept it.

    However if adaptability is encouraged (along with confidence and through a lens of critical thinking) then we will have a society not only more accepting of change, but also able to benefit from it. This general idea of adaptability is, after all, one of the main pillars of successful evolution. This broader concept trickles down to mistakes being turned into opportunity. And individuals more equipped to adapt have an easier time not only recovering from mistakes, but also creating a profitable outcome from those mistakes.

    I guess my point is that the individual incident isn't what's important. I could easily come up with a scenario and decide how it could be utilized for creativity or engaging my audience. Unfortunately that scenario will likely never repeat itself so having a backup script of ideas proves as useless as the original script. But having the skill to adapt to whatever happens in general allows me to change my entire presentation on the spot at anytime. Sometimes the entire speech becomes a totally new animal. But so long as the core points were made, who cares?

    This adaptability has saved my bacon countless times...
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      Dec 22 2011: Thanks for sharing your story Zach. One reason I brought up the culture and educational system is that Taiwan (and to extent Taiwan is a reflection of Asian educational system) is based on a standardized testing environment., so. as you can imagine, deviation from the standard answer is shunned and severely over-corrected. (Even my left handedness was over-corrected when I was in the second grade.)

      I see this near zero-tolerance learning environment and the government's push for creativity business ventures,and I just think it's a mismatch between mean and ends. You cannot expect a good percentage of your highly educated citizen to be creative if your educational process is a mono-culture of standardized tests.

      I think your adaptability has a component of experimentation in it, in order to be helpful in a new scenario. After prolonged (12 year) of fearing mistakes, I cannot say high school student going into college will take advantage of the freer environments. It's like one of those invisible pet fence that administer small electrical shocks when you cross over the boundary. You cannot have creative mentality without embracing experimentation, and you cannot engage in experimentation as the default solution-finding mentality without tolerating and encouraging learning from mistake.
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    Dec 15 2011: If you listen to Eckhart Tolle's recorded lectures, there are instances where such interruptions occur (plane flying overhead, loud noises outside the room, etc.) and he handles it beautifully. He uses it as an opportunity to be "in the moment"....meaning sometimes he will make a humorous remark, other times he will use it as an example in reference to the topic he is discussing, and other times he will simply remain completely silent...and then pause before continuing. The thing is....if you "plan" how you will react, then you are not really IN the moment (because if you are completely in that moment, whatever you do will arise from spontaneity and not from memory or rehearsal). If you handle it in this way (by simply being totally aware and in the present moment when the pause occurs) your response will always be the most productive and effective for all involved.
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      Dec 15 2011: yes, well said Maynard,The whole point is to be in the moment.to fully excavate all the possibilities of the moment.and very wise, yes, when we can do that what we say and do next will inavriably be what bests serves all involved, what elevates all involved.
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    Dec 13 2011: Sir,
    May I suggest the following for those akward pauses? When it is a cell phone interruption just stop, be silent, smile at the audience and wait for about 20 seconds while you are looking like you are thnking a great thought for the next statement. Turn not towards the sound but away from it during this silence. Take a step or two and slowly turn back to the audience. Look several people directly in the eye and say something like the following:
    1. The sound of the phone reminds me about .... and go on with the talk
    2. The sound makes my exact point about....
    3. Interruptions are gifts that let us take a moment and think about.....
    4. If that is my wife calling tell her I wont forget to pickup milk on the way home
    5. Please tell the (Highest official of the place you are at) that I will call him/her back just as soon as I make this very important point
    6. Who here dislikes those evening sales calls as much as I do. In fact that makes my exact point about....
    7. That is my boss calling to check up on me please tell him I am here and you are loving my presentation about...
    8. Class dismissed !!!!!!
    9. Ok who ordered the pizza?
    These are just a few ways you could use the interruption to get your mind back on track and bring the audience back to you. I hope they are of use to you or spark other ideas
    James Turner
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    Dec 28 2011: In classes I often use the APPLE method (Ask - Pause - Pick - Listen - Evaluate. The pause allows the student to collect thought and formulate an answer. In a lecture environment the most successful handling of interruption is by stand up commedians. Say a cell phone goes off ... "If that is my mom tell her I need a ride home". The key is to maintain control of the audience. The laugh you get will relieve tension. You can now insert a quick review. "The point of the matter is that he had greatness thrust upon him at a young age ...... In later years he proved ....." And you are back in stride. I read through and stop at various points and ask what if I am stopped here what could I do and how would I regain the focus. Lights go out "pay the electrical bills joke", cell phone make a joke about you ... not the person in the audience. A successful and well planned presentation will inspire creativity ... not the pause. Good luck.
  • Dec 23 2011: Simple solution. Simple solution.

    Use the basic concept of selective attention to divert the awkwardness away from the situation by pointing something out in the environment. Then, use the concept of attribution theory to make the next step. This will not only remove the awkward pause, but it will create a totally different conversation. This is what Stefon Harris meant in his TED talk which can be viewed under related talks.
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      Dec 23 2011: Zared, can you give some examples to explain 'selective attention' and 'attribution theory'? I am not familiar with those terms and I sincerely want to understand your insight into this issue, and I don't want my own ignorance get in the way of that.
      • Dec 24 2011: You are not ignorant if you want to know, so I will explain this concept to you more in depth.

        For example, I was catching up with a friend at Starbucks. Then, came this guy I know who states that I am on a date. Sheer awkwardness filled up the air until he leaves, then I blew away the dead air by stating that he is simple an awkward person who tries his best to socially interact. Then, he came back in the store and repeated that action again because in reality, he is a cynical jerk. I repeated the reason for his actions as mentioned before because those actions supported my reason which had the same effect.

        Attribution theory explain the direction of the conversation and it allowed me to understand the next step of it. Selective attention can be diverted to something else in case of an emergency as mentioned in the example. The something else does not necessarily have to relate to the awkwardness, it just has to follow the direction of the conversation was going towards before the awkward silence plays in.

        P.S The situation mentioned in the example happened today. Thank you, attribution theory and selective attention.
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    Dec 19 2011: I think humor always works, as long as you mean it. You could click to a slide that says "cell phonus interruptus" every time it happens. You could do a dance while you wait and encourage your audience to do the same. You could have a contest with your friends, and the one with the most interruptions wins.

    Personally, I like to think before I answer something important, and I've had a few friends tell me that the pause seemed awkward ("What's she doing? Did I say something wrong?") before they realized I was thinking.

    Pauses, silences, mistakes, reflection, meditation...all potentially uncomfortable things that lead to creativity, as I'm just starting to figure out myself. Thanks for bringing it up.
  • Dec 16 2011: A friend of mine, Miles Grenadier, (now deceased) invented a random word clock that tended to generate creative thought. Rhymex was the name of the organization he set up. Perhaps his daughter is continuing it. It was a wonderful, under-appreciated invention. I enjoyed it while sipping coffee in Muddy's in Bisbee, Arizona, USA, Earth, Sun, Milky Way, Universe Alpha. I agree that "interruptions" are useful.
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    Dec 16 2011: I don't entirely know, Roger, how they might be used to generate creativity.

    I do remember walking up to two people, a guy and a girl, whose conversation I had been vaguely listening to. I had the distinct impression that their conversation had become --- very personal, emotionally. Sensing the impasse they appeared to have reached, I just reacted without much thought.

    "Hmm, an awkward silence," I said into the void, looking pensively from one face to the other.

    They looked at me, and started laughing. "I love you, Logan," the girl said.

    I don't know, but it seemed like just identifying the awkwardness of the situation and putting my finger on it, *naming* it, and being completely okay with it in the moment, was all it took to kickstart the conversation. Did it solve anything? Maybe not. But it gave them an extra moment to decide what they were going to do.
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    Dec 15 2011: I've been thinking about this....the qualitative difference between an awkward pause generated by a behavior vs.an event calls for different responses. Responding to a cell phone ring and someone's unexpected action would have to be different, because we are acknowledging different things. The first one is just an interruption, where as the second one, behavioral one, is what Stefon Harris was talking about.
  • Dec 15 2011: I think Henry Rollins said it best, "fear is stupid". He's right, of course. Most of our fears are unwarranted. Many fear the awkward pause. A Buddhist might say we fear it because silence forces us to self reflect, to look inward. Well, many of us don't like what we find when we look inward. My technique for awkward pauses is to recognize it openly. Such as "...and here we have an awkward pause...moving on..."
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      Dec 16 2011: RYan, I think acknowledging it is a great first step. (Sounds like I'm in an AA meeting), any suggestion on how we can exploit that moment and make our time in front of people most valuable?
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    Dec 15 2011: A provocative and intriguing question, Roger. Of course, what intrigued me may not at all be what you have in mind or or expected in framing your question.

    I think every moment that "deviates from script" ,deviate from what s expected is an opportunity for a powerfully creative and possibly even transformative, mutually tansformative possibilties.

    It's like the cosmos sending an automagtic "pause" message..actually suggetsing that a different narrative, a different direetion might be invited in that moment.

    Such moments are an invitation to turn on our "mindful listening" chanel..inside us we should hera "stand by and listen eith heart and mind for further guidance"

    Your example suggests that.

    What more could you say to describe your own experience, to share what your hunches are about these moments?
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      Dec 15 2011: Lindsay, thanks for bring up the word "script" I had not thought of it in term of an awkward pause being deviation from the script, and of course, that's what it is, someone not playing the role relative to a consensual expectation. In film, the analogy would be breaking the fourth wall, where the director calls attention to the artificiality of the experience.

      While I like the comedic approach to get back to the script, your remarks is making me think of maybe experimenting in another direction. What if, when an awkward pause occurs, rather than going back to the script, we go up a level in truth. Stripping out the presentational magic, and just speak candor?

      As for my own personal experience, the most vivid one was the conclusion of a leadership workshop, where I was trying out a subliminal presentation where I use a muted video, but gave the images meaning through my own narration. The cell phone interrupted the experience half way through the video, but I kept going. The audience's response was enthusiastic at the end, but it was also dampened. I was trying to create a shamanic moment and was frustrated by the cellphone-interruptus.
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        Dec 15 2011: Roger,

        Yes that's it exactly. The invitation presented by an awkward pause , a "deviation from script" is to move up a level, to move closer to our own truth, our own authenticity, to be fully present to what is called upon in that moment and then,( here is the creative part) to act on the invitation of that moment without thinking about it, surrendering to it..

        Improv+++
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          Dec 15 2011: Ah...ummm...huh....okokok...hmmm?
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          Dec 15 2011: Improv in front of a hundred of people...the fear factor might have me buying adult diapers.

          I have gone over my presentation interruption, and I realize where the interruption occurs also matter. If it happened at an early stage, I could see myself using the comedic solutions many have suggested, but towards the end, the emotional and attentional investment was too great for comedy.

          I'm still thinking about moving to a higher level of truth as a response to interruption without diverting attention to the device generating the interruption....

          I need to rethink on this, since our fear factor goes up with the size of the crowd, that is also a source of inhibition and the awkward pauses represent two opportunities, either to recover (and therefore move back to the script) or pivot (where we acknowledge the script and move to a higher level of summary.)
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        Dec 15 2011: oh oh!!!

        Denis..did I set off your woo alarm?

        I understand.

        Have you not had an experience where an unexpected deviation from what you "scripted" and intended actually lead you to more fruitful and productive ground than your original plan could have?

        That's really all I'm suggesting..or sharing as my own experience

        .serendipity

        goin' with the flow

        recognizing there is a flow
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          Dec 16 2011: Oh well...

          Guess my humour was lost on you again... let this be the last awkward moment between us!

          Still...

          All the very best to you !
          Denis
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          Dec 19 2011: As a singer-songwriter awkward silences within the process of 'writing' a new song often lead me to a more creative level of composing. Hit the 'wrong' string, put the fingers on the 'wrong' fret, listen, pause and inside it goes 'aha!'.
          The 'mistake' causes the pause. The pause causes popping up a level of creative awareness. And apart from a new musical idea, a smile ensues.

          The great Frank Zappa said: "Any mistake played more than twice becomes part of the arrangement." He was right.
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    Dec 15 2011: My philosophy professor anecdotally pointed out that there is a growing fad amongst job interviewers to purposefully create awkward pauses during interviews. The objective is to have a measure, albeit a subjective one, of how confident the candidate is.

    I wonder if this could be expanded to see if there is a creative or unique way that the candidates would respond to such pauses?
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    Dec 12 2011: I think the awkward pause is a breaking moment for everyone concerned. The person whose cell phone just rang is probably trying to dig out the battery like mad. Unless the person is out of the room ( and this has happened to me before.), it usually stops after a short while. My bigger question is, how do we turn those moment when everyone's out of the zone, into a powerful moment? No just trying to pull them back into the moment, but to take the interruption and make it a pivot into something more powerful than a resumed presentation.
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      Dec 15 2011: I think that many of us agree that comedy can be a good approach, but it depends on the speaker and how fast one is on his/her toes. I love James' suggestions, especially #5. The topic and audience will dictate appropriateness of any given response. I would say that if there is any way to tie this in to your talk- do it!

      Another suggestion would be for a speaker to always prepare for a cell phone ring, in the event it happens. That way, when it happens, the speaker can say, "Great idea!" Then he/she can ask everyone to take out their phones and take an action. It could be to tweet something, text something, or look at a feature that ties into the talk.
  • Dec 12 2011: Referring back to your cell phone example, if I were in your shoes I would make the situation humorous, but a level of comedy that does not withdraw from the Powerpoint which would lead to loss of interest or distraction. Taking the audience out of the zone is the worst but when situations such as the phone arise your best option is to quickly end the situation. If you lead it ring and unquestioned the audience is going to wonder who that was and why? Also makes you look like a weak speaker.
  • Dec 12 2011: You can try comedy.
  • Dec 12 2011: Wow: good question.
    Can one even be present during an awkward pause?
    Such ability takes guts.
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      Dec 15 2011: actually it takes practice

      practice, practice, practice

      it is only possible if being fully present in the moment is a habit one is actively cultivating and developing .

      it's like singing or playing a musical instruent or athletic excellence

      practice practice practice

      and then it just becomes automatic

      sort of like the "concentration without effort" a tightrope walker has