Getting People to Talk: “He Then Stared at Them Expectantly”

By Jack Limpert

From the Washington Post obituary of author Joseph Persico:

He served as a Navy officer during the Korean War and worked in state government in New York before joining the USIA in the late 1950s. He was assigned to Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and Washington, where he once shared an elevator ride in 1961 with [Edward R.] Murrow, the renowned radio and television journalist who was USIA director at the time.

In his widely lauded 1988 biography of Murrow, Mr. Persico recalled the encounter.

“My eye went automatically to his hand, where indeed there was a cigarette,” he wrote. “I remember thinking that Ed Murrow looked the way Ed Murrow was supposed to look….I remember too an electrical field around the man that the others in the elevator pretended not to feel, the stiff silence merely heightening the voltage.”…

In conducting research for his books, Mr. Persico said he borrowed his interviewing technique from Murrow, who often maintained a stoic silence that his subjects were eager to fill.

“When he spoke with politicians or celebrities,” Mr. Persico said in 1989, “he listened to their first answer to his question and then stared at them expectantly, waiting for them to go deeper. Inevitably, they did. He would throw away the first response and use the much more interesting material in the unrehearsed version.”
Getting people to talk by maintaining a stoic silence? Okay, it worked for Murrow, and it’s true that some reporters talk too much in an interview, try too hard to show how smart they are. But there’s a lot of middle ground between a reporter talking too much and giving an interview subject the Murrow stare.

Here’s one veteran reporter on using a prolonged silence to try to open up an interview subject:

“This is a fairly specialized technique that did not apply in most of the reporting I did. I found it more productive to engage a person in a conversation, throwing in enough from me to get my question across, showing I know something about the subject, and establishing rapport.

“I think the silent treatment works mostly in tense situations where you are trying to ask about something that is sensitive or embarrassing to the subject or requires some deep memory on his part.

“No surprise that the strategy comes from a person out of broadcasting. The whole point in radio and to an even great extent in television is creative drama. Same approach that Mike Wallace used with the ambush interview. You always have to remember that they edit the hell out of the footage to put the person in the best or worst light, depending on their bias.”
Here’s some reporting wisdom from Harry Jaffe, a longtime senior writer for The Washingtonian:

“With all due respect to Ed Murrow and Joseph Persico, I don’t subscribe to the pregnant silence technique. I’ve never found that it elicits better responses.

“My best interviews are conversations where my questions lead to answers which might provoke observations from me and then more questions. I don’t let the conversation wander. I know where it’s headed and I know what I need. Before the interview, I’ve studied the subject. I have a sense of how the article might read and what quotes would fit into it. The interview isn’t entirely scripted, but I have the questions I need to answer.

“The subject can surprise me and take the article in a different direction. Either way, I have always found that making the subject comfortable produces the best responses. I would rather disarm the person by establishing rapport than make him or her uptight with an extended silence.

“For the cagey subject who doesn’t want to answer a question, I ask it again. I ask it differently. I keep talking. I return to it later in the interview.

“The only place where the silent treatment might work is in the hostile interview, where the conversation style flat out won’t work. But if you get a tightlipped response to a tough question, would a long moment of silence crack the subject? I doubt it.”
So moments of silence don’t often work as a getting-them-to-talk strategy? Here’s Mike Feinsilber, a veteran wire service reporter, with some advice on staying silent:

“I’m with Murrow. As a reporter, I used silence—or at least a long pause—inviting the interviewee to elaborate and to clarify. (So what if he thinks I’m dense.) Silence also gives the reporter a moment to think about what’s just been said, offering a chance to frame a follow up question that can produce more information.

“The interviewee wants to be understood and to be convincing. So the interviewer is smart to provide the opportunity. Given the opportunity, the beans will spill. Sometimes.”


  1. From Lisa DePaulo, a writer who is very good at getting people to tell her too much:

    “I don’t call it the silent treatment. More of a long pause and a hmmmm or an empathetic nod….When there is silence of any kind, the subject WILL fill it in. And yeah, it’s always better than the first response. Learned this from Alan Halpern!”

  2. A P.S. from Lisa DePaulo:

    Jack, this also reminds me of my favorite line from David Halberstam: The best follow question is “And then what happened?”

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