I tell clients, when training them early on in the art of being interviewed by the media, that one of the best tools in their rhetorical belt is silence. Control it, I say, and you control the interview and, broader, the argument — in the forensics sense.
That’s because journalists — especially those whose time with you is being broadcast live — hate “dead air.” It leaves their audience bored, the thinking goes, and boredom equals tuning out — literally and/or figuratively. Even if you’re not live, but just chatting with a reporter jotting notes in a notebook, lulls in the conversation are uncomfortable. The interviewee feels it, too. Which is why I tell my clients to let those moments breathe — as appropriate. As communicators, we get a little yippy if there’s too much time between words — and before too long someone will jump in to fill it up with theirs. I never want my clients to do it unless they have a reason more strategic than ending the quiet.
What are the interview benefits of strategic silence? For one, it signals the interviewer is thinking. This is especially good for the interviewee if he or she has just dropped a dollop of knowledge tied to his or her subject-matter distinctives and expertise. Live, it lets the audience know your words should be taken seriously, because they’ll challenge assumptions and change minds. One-on-one, it signals what you’re saying is being considered, not just recorded or written down. That opens the door for you to seize the agenda from the interviewer, because he or she is thinking of follow-up questions based on your answers, not their prep. That makes it more likely you can execute your game plan of delivering the talking points you came in wanting to make rather than reacting solely to the queries put in front of you. You don’t just think better, you articulate better, when you take your time responding, and appropriately placed silence allows you to slow your thinking and speaking to maximize the precision and impact of both.
I’ve been thinking about all of this a lot lately when I engage social media. No, a Facebook discussion thread about U.S. immigration policy is not an interview on CNN. An exchange of tweets about gun control is not a sit-down with The New York Times editorial board. But the same principles of employing silence to your advantage definitely apply.
So, the next time you’re scrolling through your news feed and see that friend who always finds herself on the incendiarily wrong side of (insert name of policy issue here), what if you let the moment breathe … and simply say nothing? More so in social media than in just about any area of life, uncomfortable silences won’t last long, so don’t worry about feeling uncomfortable. You can rest assured someone will fill up the quiet — and if you have no strategically good reason for that being you, scroll on by, keeping your keyboard powder dry.
And when that guy you work with who hates the politicians you love, or vice versa, goes thermonuclear in his bombastic criticism or slavish praise of Elected Official X, ask yourself: Whose agenda will I be serving if I rush in with my reaction? Will I be getting across what I’m all about, or just registering my disapproval of what he’s about? If the tone is heated, and my points are reasoned, is this the “interview” I want to be doing anyway? If not, embrace silence. Do not cast your pearls before whine. It will help you avoid an argument, in the non-forensics sense,
Worried you won’t ever get to talk? Fear not. If you go looking for places where you can truly talk, rather than shout or get shouted at, you’ll find opportunities to get some words in edgewise. Consider it choosing the right interview opportunity for the talking points you want to get across. Choosing your best opportunities to talk is as important as choosing the right words to say … and when to say them.