How pauses can boost performance in media interviews

These five tips can help you think before you speak and avoid that ‘gulp!’ moment when a journalist catches you with an aggressive question.

“The pause is as important as the note.”—Truman Fisher, composer

That wisdom applies not just to music, but also to media interviews.

Pauses offer tremendous benefits for speaker and audience alike, but only a handful of speakers take full advantage of them.

Unfortunately, our culture tends to stigmatize pauses, viewing silences as “dead air” that can lead people to wonder whether we’re a bit dimwitted.

For recorded formats—print interviews and edited radio and television interviews—your pause usually won’t be used or mentioned in the story. (I’ve noted a few exceptions below.) Even if you think you know the answer to the question right away, pause for the following five reasons:

1. Pauses eliminate “thinking while talking” syndrome. When people begin speaking the moment the question is asked, they often find their way to the answer while talking. It’s common for people to start talking, find their thought about halfway into their response, and deliver a terrific answer from that midpoint to the end. Pausing allows you to jump in at that midpoint, eliminating the buildup to your “real” answer. If you want to give a better answer, stop talking for a few seconds. Don’t deny yourself the opportunity to think for an extra few seconds.

2. Pauses improve your eye contact. Word retrieval and eye contact work in tandem. When we try to access a memory or download a phrase, we often break eye contact and look away. That loss of eye contact can signal discomfort to a television audience (or worse), but only if it occurs while you’re speaking. If you pause before speaking, you’ll be able to complete your “downloading” in advance, allowing you to deliver a more confident and locked-in response when you begin. One technical note: If you look away while thinking, look back up and wait a beat before starting your response; it’s difficult to edit an answer if you begin speaking “on the move” while lifting your head back up.

3. Pauses make for easier edits. Many interviewees detect where the reporter’s question is heading and jump in to begin answering it before the reporter has finished. Those brief moments of crosstalk can make for a difficult radio or television edit if the person interviewing you won’t be heard or seen in the story. If the goal is to deliver a clean quote, force yourself to pause for a beat before responding.

4. Pauses allow you to catch the full question. Reporters sometimes end a question with a twist, asking something different than you originally anticipated. If you turn off your brain the moment you think you caught the question, you might be caught off guard by an unanticipated curveball—or miss it altogether.

5. Pauses prevent you from signaling a pattern break. Imagine that you know the answer to the first 10 questions and can answer them immediately. Then the 11th question—a more aggressive one—catches you by surprise, forcing you to pause. In doing so, you’ve signaled to the reporter that something made you uneasy—and good reporters will ask probing follow-ups to understand why. Yet if you had already established a pattern of pausing after the first 10 questions—even when you didn’t have to—nothing will appear different when you pause for the 11th.

Pausing for just a few seconds is often sufficient to take advantage of the five points above. In some cases, you can pause longer—and you’d rather get your answer right than rush into it and get it wrong. If an eight-second pause results in a stronger answer, pause for eight seconds.

Three times not to pause

Although reporters can note your pause in any news story, it’s unusual for them to do so outside the following situations:

  • You’re in a crisis, and your silence would suggest evasion, incompetence or lack of preparation.
  • You’re the subject of a profile piece, and your long pauses could indicate control issues.
  • You’re giving a live interview, in which long pauses can make you seem slow on your feet. Even if you can’t pause for several seconds during a live exchange, at least give yourself the benefit of hearing the full question before jumping in to respond.

Brad Phillips is president of Phillips Media Relations, which specializes in media and presentation training. He is author of the Mr. Media Training Blog, (where a version of this article originally appeared) and two books: “The Media Training Bible” and “101 Ways to Open a Speech.”

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