Know When to Stop Talking

Know When to Stop Talking

by | Feb 14, 2023

Media interviews require a lot of preparation for a spokesperson. From developing key messages, visual aids and supporting facts to identifying two or three empathetic and relatable stories, preparing for an interview demands plenty of practice.

When we provide media training and spokesperson training, we also work with clients to help them recognize when it’s time to stop talking. Because in some cases, especially crisis response, what you hold back can be just as important as what you share.

Study: It’s Hard to Know When to Stop Talking

In a study published two years ago in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at Harvard University concluded that most people want most of their conversations – even with family and friends – to end well before they actually do.

“Whatever you think the other person wants, you may well be wrong,” lead author Adam Mastroianni told a Scientific American reporter when the study was published. “So, you might as well leave at the first time it seems appropriate, because it’s better to be left wanting more than less.”

Mastroianni and his team did not conduct their study for the benefit of public relations practitioners, but we can draw one important lesson from their work: If you don’t have anything more to add when answering questions during an interview, stop talking.

Awkward Silences Are an Old Reporter’s Trick

When it comes to media relations, most reporters are just trying to get the story right – and fast. Unless they work for 60 Minutes or some other investigative outlet, they’re generally not looking to “get” you or catch you in a lie or contradiction.

That said, reporters are always looking for a good story. They’ll employ a number of techniques to get you to make news by saying something “off message” that you didn’t intend to share. A common method comes in the form of an awkward silence that they’ll allow to fester until you feel compelled to say something, anything, to end the discomfort. This technique works because most people do not like silence.

To avoid falling into this trap, here’s what we recommend:

  • Practice, practice, practice. We tell our clients that interviews are performances, and like any other performance – singing, dancing, athletics – practice makes perfect. The more confident you are in what you want to say, the less likely that you’ll say something you shouldn’t. Take time to prepare.
  • Stay on message and repeat as necessary. No matter what a reporter may ask, bridge back to the safety of your messages and talking points. Don’t be afraid to repeat those messages over and over again, even if it feels a little strange. And when you’re done, stop and wait for the next question.
  • Don’t fill the silence. When you’ve said everything you want to say, stop talking. If the reporter tries the “awkward silence” trick, don’t fall for it. Sit (or stand) patiently and wait for them to ask another question. If it becomes too much to bear, simply ask, “Do you have another question for me?”

For communicators, talking is easy. It’s one of the reasons we were attracted to the profession. But sometimes, silence is golden.

Leonard Greenberger

Leonard is Vice President at AKCG – Public Relations Counselors and heads the firm’s Washington, D.C.-area office. Leonard provides strategic planning, issues/crisis counseling, branding and marketing communications, and media training services. He has particular expertise working with 501(c) organizations in the energy, science and construction sectors.

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