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Tom Alderman Headshot

Silence is Golden, Unless You're Chris Matthews

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Veteran 60 Minutes newsy Mike Wallace was asked by Time magazine why he often pauses after his subjects answer a question. When I say nothing, he said, "...they get embarrassed by the silence and they begin to fill the silence. Suddenly they begin to really talk." Effective silence is media gold because it often produces a salivating gotcha moment. Wallace certainly didn't invent the ploy - every trial lawyer and therapist understands it - but he and 60 Minutes energized the trick for whole new generations of TV reporters. And admit it, we news consumers get infectious pleasure when executives, celebrities and politicians say things they later regret, forcing the requisite groveling and apology. Are you listening, Sen. Reid?

If you are one of the many people who talks to the news media, especially on the phone or on a live Internet chat, you probably have thought through the questions you might get asked and what points you want to make. But if you are not familiar with the silence tactic - you probably will be uncomfortable. You give a cogent answer but you get nothing back. You're someone who likes complexity, who wants to explain, likes to be understood - so you keep going. It's in the 'keep-going' that you might start opening doors best left closed. Oops, did you really want to talk about future product or policy possibilities? The newsy sure does.

So here a tip to counter the post-answer silence from the media: pre-empt the silence. Button-up your answers with your own questions - something like, "Does that make sense? You understand? You see?" Make the interviewer come back to you if more is wanted. And if they do, your best response is to re-phrase and repeat the answer you've already given. Repetition never hurt a spokesperson.

If you're a political talker, there is one media venue where you will never hear the sound of silence - MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews. The man's interview style is so ADD-ish, he barely lets anyone finish an answer before he interrupts with, "Let me ask you this..." While his push-push style underscores the show's hardball concept and makes for propulsive TV, it's not so good for guests who are trying to make a point but don't have the control to short-circuit the host with a polite, "Wait, Chris, let me finish. This is important."

It was also not so good a few years ago when Matthews met the erudite William F. Buckley, Jr. and neither came out very well. For the uninitiated, Buckley, founder of the conservative magazine the National Review, was the host of Firing Line, a TV talk-show dealing with contemporary issues and guests like Hardball. Leaning back in his chair, eyes widening, tongue flicking, Buckley loved words and used them in complex sentences that flowed with melodic grace. He didn't do soundbites. Whether you agreed with him, or not, he was mesmerizing with his veritable symphony of words and thoughts.

Hardball was one of Buckley's last TV appearances and it was like watching those two tiny black-and-white doggie magnets for kids that can't connect head to head because of their opposite polarities. There was Matthews rat-a-tatting his questions and Buckley never quite able to complete his fluent and expansive answers. It was a disconnected moment in time between old and new talk-show discourse. It was also a time when silence would've really been golden.

The takeaway from this TV tale is when talking to the news media - know what you want to say, say it and stop! Sometimes you have to be silent to be heard.