Fallows’s Advice For “Young Interviewers”

“Interviewing Tips” from James Fallows:

The “let the silence stretch out” approach…can be a surprisingly valuable interviewing technique. The truth is that most people who are being interviewed would like to think that they are providing you with “interesting” information, which reflects well on their knowledge, insight, sense of humor, general bonhomie, etc. People want to be liked and to feel as if they’re holding up their end of the conversation. Obviously this doesn’t apply in a 60 Minutes-style hostile interrogation, but in most non-adversarial interviews, the subject wants to feel that he is holding the interest of the questioner.

Thus informal body-language signs that you’re getting bored or disappointed usually prompt an interviewee to try harder and say more. The strategic use of silence can send such a signal, since people become uncomfortable and think that the silence is their fault. You can’t do it very often, but every now and then it works great….

If someone’s goal is to stay On Message no matter how it makes him look — think, Scott McClellan handling questions about Scooter Libby in the late Bush years — these psycho-warfare tricks will be futile. But for you aspiring young interviewers: remember to give strategic-silence a try.

Liz Cox Barrett is a freelance writer and graphic designer in Kalispell, Montana. She worked as a newspaper journalist in Denver and Kalispell for 20 years.