Ingenious Interviewing Tip – Silence

We’ve all had those interviews. No matter what you ask or how you ask it, your interview subject is shut up tighter than a presidential candidate making a VP pick. Sometimes people are worried about giving too much information away, others are just nervous, but either way you’ve got to get the information. So, what can you do to crack that nut?

The ever faithful “Could you elaborate on that?” sets it up and then your follow up hits it out of the park: silence. Silence is uncomfortable and in today’s world, unusual. Your pleasant, expectant pause is often a better prompt than several follow up questions. Your subject will work to fill the silence and in turn provide you with not only the answer you seek, but additional information that is ripe for follow up questions.

The key to using silence is to use it sparingly. Try all of your other techniques first: use open ended questions and encouraging body language, pull from your pool of prior conducted research, but when the interview gets tough, you get silent and just let the subject talk. Another point to remember – be careful using it on the phone. The interview subject may think the call got disconnected and by the time you get finished explaining you’re still on the line, you’ve lost the power and momentum of the silence.

Great interviewing skills are essential to a writer’s repertoire. Tuesday in our comments section for my post on research we talked about the importance of interviewing including the interviewing hierarchy: 1. in person, 2. over the phone, 3. via email. Writers use their interviewing skills beyond articles to interview clients, employees, etc. What are some of your favorite interviewing tips?


  1. says

    Great post Terreece, and I’m loving the tips and discussions on article writing!

    I find I like to reiterate what they’ve said when I know a point will be tricky to understand or convey in the writing. I’ll even simply say, “So what you’re saying is…” or, “Just to reiterate so that I understand…” this often spurs add-ons and clarifications by the interviewee that I wouldn’t otherwise have gotten.

  2. says

    I rarely have to interview people who are reluctant to talk to me, but something related to silence is an important technique anyway. I’m careful not to stick to a rigid list of questions because maybe they’re not the right questions, you know? The most important point might be one that you don’t know enough to ask about. So I make sure I always ask something like “what do YOU think people need to know about this topic?” And give the person enough time to think about it.

    In fact sometimes if I know I have a really good source, I won’t have a list of questions at all. I’ll say basically, “I’m writing about this topic, trying to make these points and address these issues, I know you know about this – just go ahead and riff on that for me.” With the right person that’s all I have to do, and then follow up on what they say if needed.

  3. Mildred says

    This was very helpful, Terreece. And it also validates what I’m doing right and what to avoid, such as using silence in great doses over the telephone. I had that happen before and then as you said, it was difficult to pick up the momentum again.

    But as Wombat pointed out, sometimes riffing, or letting a subject riff is good–if time allows. But I do like to prepare questions in case I get stuck or don’t articulate correctly, especially when it comes to jargon–I want to be clear. The only thing I’ve noticed with subjects that riff easily is that the interview can last much longer than I intend and I still transcribe my notes manually, so if the interview is over an hour, yikes!

  4. says

    I like to throw out an example of what the person is talking about that is in-line with my audience’s needs. (“So, for example if…”). Just a quick one and leave it open-ended enough for them to agree and elaborate on that idea, or offer up their own scenarios. This, I find can help for articles where you are providing ‘how-to’ type of information, and it helps create a nice conversation flow.

    I end every interview with an invitation for the interviewee to mention anything we haven’t already talked about that they feel is important. You never know — (and I’ve had this happen) that last question/invitation might end up giving you a completely new angle!

  5. says

    If we treat each interviewee as a client (regardless if they are or not), it might provide a different perspective for both parties. It is important to remember that they are providing us with a courtesy, and to promote them in the best possible manner.

    After the discussion, follow-up is also very important and often neglected.

  6. says

    Steve – Excellent point! A follow-up is not only good courtesy but keeps that person open to be used as a source again.

    Aurora – Good tip!

    Mildred – Thanks! Oh that’s another subject we’ve got to tackle – when the interviewee won’t shut up :0) One of my first interviews got wildly out of control and I ended up spending 2 hours with an interview subject for a 400 word article.

    Wombat – Yes, it is important to know when to move off the questions you had to ones that maybe fit a shift in the conversation better. It is still important to have that backbone of research though…

  7. says

    Terreece – that would be a GREAT topic. I once spend almost as much as I made on an article paying for the long distance interview call. I really tried to stop the chatter and flow, but I couldn’t manage it. Tips for ending/stoping the interviewee would be excellent!


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