By Alex Schiff, University of Michigan
On Monday night I spent the night in Tawas City, MI with five friends I’ve known since elementary school. We had a bonfire and sat around talking about any number of things a group of 20-year-old guys talk about. As the night turned into early morning, the conversation grew more sparse until the only sounds were the crackling fire and the waves of Lake Huron. It was one of those rare, serene silences that wasn’t driven by awkwardness or discomfort. No one felt that they had to say anything. We were just content with the situation, and no one noticed the silence.
Everyone snapped out of it at about the same time and wondered how no one mentioned that we had been silent for the past 20 minutes. One friend summed it up perfectly: “Because it’s that rare that everyone can just shut up and listen.”
I bring this up because ever since I’ve been thinking about how rare silence is. I come from a family that thinks that something is wrong if no one says anything for longer than 30 seconds on a car ride. That has unfortunately translated into my professional life as well. I often interpret someone’s quiet response as them waiting for me to go on, rather than that they’re probably just digesting whatever I just said.
And because I’m an entrepreneur, I’m always selling something — a vision, a product, an idea or strategy, you name it. I sell to customers, to friends and family, to investors and to other entrepreneurs. But recently I realized that there was a problem: I was talking way too much.
I’ve been pretty good at restraining myself during interactions with potential users, but I have bad habits when it comes to more impromptu situations. I’ll meet someone who asks me what I do, and I’ll instantly go into pitch mode. I sell the vision, give the product details and try to persuade them why it’s better than what they currently use. I let my passion get the best of me. My girlfriend says she can tell it’s coming because I start talking faster and get really animated.
Investors and entrepreneurs come into TechArb, the University of Michigan’s startup accelerator, all the time to talk to startups and give feedback. I noticed that I was spending a lot of my time with them pitching Fetchnotes, even though all I want is their thoughts on our approach (we’re not looking for money). I discuss the accomplishments and traction we’ve achieved over the past few months. I build up why we’re going to be the next big thing and why our business model and cost structure is so lucrative. If they don’t say anything, I just keep going.
At the end of the meeting people often say that they love the idea and give all sorts of other encouragement. But a lot of times I don’t get candid feedback. It’s hard to shoot someone down when they’ve spent the better part of 20 minutes telling you why they’re going to be wildly successful. I really respect the people that do. Rosy optimism is only as good as the truth underpinning it.
This doesn’t just apply to entrepreneurship or anything in particular. We all need to stop assuming that silence is a green light for you to continue flapping your mouth undeterred. Just take a moment to shut up and listen — to your surroundings and to other people. You’ll learn a lot about what that silence means and how you should handle it.
Most of the time, it doesn’t mean “just keep talking.” If you’re really lucky, it could mean that nothing needs to be said.