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The Case for Shutting Up

By Linnea Meyer '14  |  march, 2013, Issue 1
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Linnea Meyer considers the power of silence.

Congratulations first-years, we survived recruiting season número uno! Like many, I've emerged jobless, humbled and nursing my fair share of scars. One such lesson learned came from an interview for a position I really, really wanted. It felt like a perfect fit, and I started my plans to apply way back in September ... and then I bombed it.

How, you ask? I talked too much. According to my interviewer's feedback, I rarely paused and apparently spoke for ten minutes straight at one point, causing him to wonder how painful it would be to work with me. Whoops.

For those who know me, maybe this doesn't come as a surprise. (Sigh.) But it does bring up a bigger point. How comfortable are we, and should we be, with silence?

Most of us like to hear ourselves talk. (This is common to humans, A-types, and definitely MBAs.) And when there's a pause in the conversation, especially one with high stakes, we rush to fill it. Imagine a situation where you were of lesser or uncertain status: a job interview, a client pitch, a networking event or a first date. How comfortable were you with the silences?

We all need to learn to shut up in these situations. And here's why:

Silence strengthens your message. Think of any Presidential speech you've ever heard. How much does the President pause? A lot. First, it's his not-so-subtle cue for the audience to clap. Second, it allows his audience – millions of Americans with varying backgrounds – to actually process what he says. Pausing when presenting to a high-stakes audience ensures your message is heard. So whether you're bound for Washington, Wall Street or Main Street, shutting up now and then can come in handy.

Silence strengthens your image. Contrary to our instincts, in high-stakes, nerve-racking situations, not talking can actually make us look smarter. Take, for instance, when you're asked to tell a "failure" story during a job interview. Clinical Professor of Entrepreneurship Craig Wortmann (with his innumerable tips and tricks) argues that, to really hit home, you need to explain the failure and stop there. Don't jump to explain how actually you learned from or fixed it. Shutting up and owning the failure is far more impressive. You appear humble, ballsy and mature. Of course, when the interviewer then asks what you learned, feel free to unleash the beast.

Silence strengthens your power. You know that awkwardness within the silences of high-stakes situations? That's raw power, baby. We use it a ton in improvisational theater. Two players step on stage, look at each other ... look away ... look back ... look away. Finally, one states: "You again." Bam! The words are dripping with power. Silence creates this palpable intensity that can be used to your advantage. It can either force your interlocutor to speak first, belaying nervousness, or make your next message, if delivered deliberately, sound incredibly powerful. Try it on a date sometime ... you'll make magic!

Now, if the above suggestions sound wacky, first try calibrating yourself in a low-stakes conversation. Try shutting up and using silences to impact your message, image or power. Feel what it's like to be silent for too little or too long, so you can find your sweet spot. Then join me in the trenches next quarter, as we try to shut up and get a job.

Last Updated 3/11/13
Last Updated 3/11/13