Media interview pitfall: The awkward pause

 Photo: istockphoto.com

Photo: istockphoto.com

When preparing for a media interview, most people will spend at least a few minutes trying to predict the questions the reporter might ask. It's a great exercise to try and get inside the journalist's head and stress test your messages and point of view before the interview. 

Far fewer people, however, take the time to plan what they'll say or do in the absence of a question.

Media interviews can be stressful, particularly if you haven't done many of them. And one of the few things that's as stressful as being asked a tough question by a reporter is hearing silence after you've given your answer. The spokesperson may interpret the silence as a signal that the reporter is perhaps waiting for the rest of their response. Or they might take it as a sign of skepticism, that the reporter wasn't satisfied with their answer or that they didn't believe it.  

The spokesperson may start to panic. They'll begin to question their response. Maybe they'll start to speculate about what the reporter might be thinking. And then, to break the deafening silence, they start talking again. The problem is that what they usually say in this situation isn't one of the messages they mapped out in advance. And in many cases, introducing new, unplanned content into a media interview is going to negatively impact your odds of successfully influencing the two or three quotes you get in the story.

Embrace the pause

The reason most people find a pause during a media interview uncomfortable is that they find a pause in their day-to-day conversations uncomfortable. But as we know, a media interview is not a conversation. Rather, it's a strategic exchange of information in which each party has a desired outcome.

In our media training sessions, I encourage spokespeople to shed their fear of the awkward pause. To be comfortable with it. This isn't Jeopardy. There are no bonus points for answering quickly. And in many cases, session participants tell me they feel more comfortable knowing they have permission to leave these pauses in the interview and to realize it's not their job to quickly fill those voids with content. 

Specifically, there are two points that make people feel more comfortable with the 'awkward pause':

  1. It's possible the pause in the interview is simply a function of the reporter trying to 'catch up' in their typing or note-taking after one of your answers.
  2. The pause probably feels longer to you than it is. Peoples' perception of time can change during the stress of a media interview and a gap of three or four seconds can feel like an eternity.

So the next time a reporter leaves you hanging for a few seconds after one of your responses, try breaking the silence with one of the following:

  • "Does that answer your question?"
  • "Do you have any other questions?" 
  • Or, if it's a telephone interview, "Are you still there?" 

 

When faced with an uncomfortable pause during an interview, the solution is usually to fill the void with something that's unquotable and that helps you minimize that awkward feeling and keep the interview rolling along.