Why you should embrace silence

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If you ever have to do a difficult media interview I urge you to follow one essential tip: embrace silence…

I used to work for a daily newspaper. Mostly, I edited, but every once in a while, I had the chance to write. In those days, I didn’t enjoy writing (as I do now), but I always loved interviewing. I liked getting out of the office, getting paid to talk and having the chance to meet  interesting people.

My big responsibility was features — usually, profiles of well-known authors — but from time to time I also had to do a news story. If you are ever faced with a news reporter, I have one big tip for you: learn how to embrace silence.

News reporters like to use silence as a way of bullying their interview subjects into talking. This is because Western society is extraordinarily uncomfortable with silence.

In your regular life, if you’re having a conversation with someone and the talk suddenly stops, you’ll likely get nervous and rush in to fill the gap. The only time this doesn’t happen is when you’re talking with someone you know really well — a spouse, a partner, a sibling, a very good friend. With people we know well, we can tolerate silence. With strangers, not so much.

But if you’re being interviewed for a news story — and, here, I’m going to assume the story is bad news — learn to tolerate silence. This is because a reporter cannot report on anything you don’t say. If a reporter asks you a tricky question, take your time to think about a careful answer. The silence may become uncomfortable, but don’t worry about it. It’s far better to have a few moments of discomfort than a story that’s going to present you or your company in a bad light.

Note: I’m not saying don’t answer the question; I’m saying don’t answer it too quickly. And, after you’ve answered it, stop. If you like, turn it into a game of chicken and see if can force the reporter to be the one who breaks the silence.

People sometimes think that silence is okay in every media situation — except for TV interviews. They are wrong about TV. In all likelihood, your few seconds of silence will end up on the cutting room floor. This is particularly likely if you don’t allow yourself to become flustered. Think about it: what TV station is going to want to run silence over their airwaves?