Sound and silence


I was at a conference over the weekend. There, I had the good fortune to listen to a number of good speakers. Of the many I heard, two stood out, and for different reasons. The first speaker was Craig Valentine. He hails from Maryland, USA The little blurb in the programme note about him says it all – “Craig Valentine MBA, 1999 Toastmasters International World Champion of Public Speaking, speech coach, management trainer, sales presentation coach . . .”

His performance did justice to his superlative billing. The audience was wowed by his powerful voice, emphatic gestures and engaging eye-contact. He was pulling out all the stops as he dramatically, if somewhat histrionically, went through his routine of imparting tips on “Leadership, communications and change” and “How to present with impact and persuade with ease”.

Indeed Craig Valentine is a great speaker. I think he can out-Obama Obama. The Chinese expression for public speaking is ‘yan jiang’ which literally means “perform and speak”. It neatly describes Craig Valentine, who showed great prowess in speech and in performance. He was entertaining and engaging. He taught many valuable lessons. It was a real teacher-students relationship I witnessed that day. It fitted in the mode of the traditional Asian concept of education – the teacher being the repository of knowledge and the students the receptacles.

That evening we had another speaker. His name is Prie GS, an Indonesia satirist and a talk show host on the radio and on television. While the American Valentine is an imposing 6-footer with a booming voice, Prie is rather diminutive at just over five feet tall. However, the glint in his eyes and the hint of mischievous smile on his lips suggested that there was more to him than at first glance.

He pointedly entitled his presentation “The sound of silence” saying that that was the first time he ever present in English.

“Why the sound of silence? Well, if I run out of our English you’ll just have to listen to the sound of silence,” he quipped.

When he was invited to speak by the organisers he foolhardily accepted, assuming it to be in his native Bahasa Indonesia. Only later did he realise that it was to be in English. However, he found the challenge too irresistible and did a crash course in the language.

Knowing that he is a satirist with limited ability in the language of the conference we were bracing ourselves up for a performance a la Mr Bean, the master of the art of silent communication. We were pleasantly surprised. While Mr Bean’s is a zany nonsensical slapstick, Prie’s is profound and thought provoking. Though I must admit it took me a while to fathom the depth of his ideas.

Limited as he was by the paucity his English Prie spoke not more than a few hundred words in his half hour presentation. He resorted to using images for convey his thoughts. He talked about beauty, real beauty beneath that which is skin deep. He ended up with ‘suggesting’ that we have to accept ourselves. I have put the word (suggest) in parenthesis because he did not so much as suggest as making us think and find meaning for ourselves.

He showed the picture of the so-called two most beautiful couple (while it lasted) of Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford. He then self-deprecatingly said that it seemed that all the beauty had been cornered by those two and leaving very little left for him. (Well, he is short and does not have a very “film star” look). He was then force to look deeper for beauty. He then showed the picture of an 84-year old lady who has given her life to her children and even in her old age continued to work (she runs a grocery store) to stay active.

Later when I reflected on it I was reminded of a distant relative. Throughout her whole life she only had thoughts for others. I remember sitting beside her during a meal. She kept on plying food on our plates.

“Amah, have some for yourself,’ we all said.

“No, no need. I am old and do not need so much food. You young people need more than me to stay strong.”

I was told that at every age she would have reasons to give others the greater slice of the cake. Her husband died young and she took care of her family by selling eggs at the market and made mere cents per egg. She was able to put her children through universities and on to decent careers. She died many years ago at a ripe old age of 93. I have almost forgotten about this beautiful person until I heard the story by Prie.

Towards the end of the talk Prie showed a picture of a man clutching his bicycle as he dangled precariously on a rope to traverse a raging river. He asked “which is more important, the man or the bicycle?”

I would have said “the man” but Prie said somewhat cryptically “the most important thing is the only thing you have.”

I don’t know what others in the audience made of that but it brought to my mind the story of a man who was killed in trying to stop debt collectors from taking away the only source of income for his family, a cow.

I was asked by the organisers what I thought of the two speakers. Really, it is like trying to compare apples to oranges. One was an example of “perform and speak”, full of style and no little substance too. The world champion showed us all the cards on how to be a great communicator. We were instantaneously impressed. However, those tips are not something that we cannot get from the many books that line the shelves of bookshops.

It took me a while to realise it but the title “The sound of silence” by the man who speaks only little English is as profound as it is clever.

Instead of the hundred or so words a minute as spoken by the world champion, Prie filled most of the minute with silence.

In the silence we reflected on the gem and the germ of ideas planted.

There is a saying, “Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself”. Craig Valentine, the champion public speaker did open the door for many of us (showed us the techniques). We have to enter them ourselves (apply the techniques). To me, Prie did not so much as opening the door as he made me look for the door myself.