Embrace the Uncomfortable Silence

Embrace the Uncomfortable Silence

In 1996, I landed my first newspaper job in DC. One of my neighbors at the time was the Washington bureau chief of Forbes Magazine, and a really top-notch reporter. We became friends and one day I told him that I was having difficulty getting people to open up during interviews. I wanted them to give me their real opinions, but all I was getting were prefabricated talking points.

So my friend gave me one of the most helpful pieces of journalistic advice I’ve ever received. “Embrace the awkward silence,” he told me.

So how does it work?

Simple. You ask the interviewee a question, and let him answer with a memorized sound bite. When he finishes speaking, resist the natural urge to jump in with a new question and, instead, just wait.

Let everything go awkwardly silent for 5-10 seconds.

More times than not, the interviewee will start talking again — often stumbling along without the crutch of a talking point. That’s when he’ll let slip what his media handlers didn’t want you to hear. It’s also when you’ll get the good quotes. And sometimes it takes the interview into deep water.

On the flip side, be aware of this technique if you’re the one being interviewed. When you finish making your point, resist the urge to continue talking, even if there’s an awkward silence. If you want to stay in shallow water, stick to your talking points — and wait for the reporter to resume the interview.

Sam Ryan