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7 Surprising Moments To Use Silence During An Interview

I remember this interview as if it was yesterday. I was just a couple of months out of grad school and actively reaching out to potential clients to establish myself as a freelance medical writer. My biggest mistake was not using silence to my advantage. 

This was my third round of interview with this client – I had already made it through the phone screen and the writing test – and it was supposed to be the last. It was a virtual panel interview with the lead editor and fact checker. 

I had been preparing for this for weeks, researching the company, the types of text they wrote, and their specific audience. I really wanted to write for them and I felt ready to show them my value.

However, things started going south the minute the interview started. Even though I didn’t realize it at the time, I’m pretty sure I had lost that client before the actual interview had begun. 

The first question was the expected “tell me a bit about yourself” I was so excited to give my elevator pitch, I started telling them the whole story of my life. Even things that weren’t really relevant to the position.

I rambled for over 5 minutes talking about myself, completely forgetting interviews are supposed to be conversations. The interviewers even tried to comment on what I was saying a couple of times, but I didn’t even let them talk.

The interview only lasted 30 minutes, even though it was scheduled to be 45 minutes to an hour. It never really turned into a pleasant conversation.

I now know that the pace of the interview would have been different had I known when to remain silent and let my interviewers talk.

Lesson learned! I spent hours after that practicing for interviews, making sure to know when I should talk and when I should remain silent. Some weeks after that, I could have pleasant conversations with prospective clients and show them my value without overpowering the interview. 

The Interview Funnel

On average there are 525 applicants for every position,  which means you have a 1 in 525 chance to get hired.  We call this the interview funnel. As you move through the funnel your odds improve. 

The first, and biggest filtering step occurs between the number of applications received and the dozen or so people who get a phone screen. The pile is narrowed down even further to only about 4-5 candidates for a video screen. From here, there is the video panel or possibly a site visit. In these panel/site visits, candidates will meet with upwards of 10 people and they have to impress each of them. 

Even though the odds are not with you, they get significantly better each time you get through one step.  This also means that the mistakes become more costly. 

Being the 1 person to get hired out of possibly 525 is a huge accomplishment. You should be proud no matter where you are in the process. Each rejection is a unique learning opportunity to understand how you can improve for the next time.

When you make it to the final interview it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, fatigued, and even a little irritated, but that last interview is the most important. It will also likely be the longest interview, somewhere between 45 minutes to a few hours. However, most interviewers will decide whether or not they want to hire you in less than 7 minutes. Some interviewers will only give 90 seconds to impress them before they make their decision. 

To succeed during the hiring process you need to communicate clearly and concisely. 

While the words said during the hiring process are crucial. The moments you remain silent also define your character and candidacy. 

Don’t make a foolish mistake by rambling on and suffocating your interviewers with wasteful information and off the cuff answers. 

Here are 7 ways to seriously use silence to show your understanding of industry interviewing intricacies. 

1. When imposter syndrome sets in 

All PhDs face imposter syndrome at some point. Most face imposter syndrome more than they should. 

You made it through your PhD, you are now an expert in your field, a Doctor of Philosophy. Don’t let imposter syndrome talk you out of an opportunity. 

Not having industry experience is the number one reason PhDs don’t feel like they can transition into industry. If this is you, it is time to silence your inner critic, to silence your imposter syndrome. Industry experience is not necessary to transition into industry but clear, concise, and confident communication is. 

Imposter syndrome is also the cause of saying “yes” too much. When you finally get a phone screen after so many rejections it’s easy to think “I should say yes to whatever they ask me”. This doesn’t always make you a better candidate, it can sometimes sound like you are desperate. 

By silencing your inner critic, you will gain confidence, overcome imposter syndrome, and new unexpected opportunities will emerge.  

2. Right before the interview 

It can be both exciting and stressful when you finally get that interview. It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed and rushed which is why proper preparation is a must. Not only should you ensure your area is clean and comfortable, that you’re dressed professionally, that you are in a quiet spot, but you should also take a moment to sit in silence. To gather your thoughts, to review your notes on the company. This is a great time to congratulate yourself for getting this far. 

Taking a few breaths right before a stressful situation can do wonders for relieving stress and centering your mind. 

3. During introductions

Most interviewers will make their decisions within the first few minutes of the interview. Making the introduction a very crucial period. 

However, it’s not just about what you say or your elevator pitch. It’s also about listening and engaging with your interviewers particularly if it’s a video panel interview. During a panel interview you may have to present and answer questions from more than 10 people. Each of them you need to greet and engage with. 

The best way to do this throughout the interview is to be silent during the introductions. When each person introduces themselves, write down their name and a little description so you can easily recall each person throughout the interview. 

Remember, in a panel interview, all participants might have a say in who is hired. Forgetting one person’s name could be the reason you don’t get hired into the position. 

 

4. When someone else is talking

This one may seem obvious but this mistake is made too often to not be said. Perhaps the most important time to be silent during an interview is when someone else is talking. It doesn’t matter if there is something more to say, or if what they are saying is wrong. You should never interrupt the hiring manager, interviewer, or any panel participant while they are speaking. This is a sure way to get someone to feel uncomfortable and belittled. 

5. If you forget what you were saying

This one is very important and we’ve all seen it. Think back to a seminar or the end of a talk at a conference. There’s always someone who “asks” a question and 5 minutes later they are still talking and no one is really sure what they are trying to say. 

In academia, there’s a certain amount of prestige that is gained from asking overly convoluted questions that don’t really seem to be going anywhere. Because PhDs are around this so frequently it becomes a part of the culture. 

This is not a smart way to answer a question during an interview. If you feel like you are rambling or you’ve lost the train of thought do you best to wrap it up quickly. Don’t try to continue to fill up space by reiterating words and talking in circles until you think you’ve gotten to a conclusion. 

6. Right after a question is asked

When you are asked a question it’s important to answer it completely, truthfully, and strategically. This requires a moment of reflection. 

Don’t try to answer a question before the interviewer is done asking it. Listen to the entirety of the question. 

Think of an event in your life that embodies that question. Then, organize a response using the STAR method. 

STAR stands for situation, task, action, result. To answer an interview question first describe a situation, but be brief. You need just enough context to allow the listener to picture the situation. Then, state the problem, or task. Next, you want to communicate the action that you specifically took to solve the problem. Finally, state the results that transpired due to your actions. 

It is difficult to formulate and organize all these steps quickly. So it’s important to take a moment of silence to formulate an adequate response.

7. During salary negotiations

Once you get an offer it’s time for the salary negotiations. This is the quickest way you can earn extra money and your success in this process can be boiled down to silence. 

Generally speaking, the first offer extended by a company is less than they are willing to give. That first number is a test to assess your business acumen and your ability to negotiate. 

Moments of strategic silence are littered throughout the negotiations process. From the very beginning, you want to avoid discussing salary. Let them make the first offer. 

When they make an offer or a counter offer it’s also important to ask for some time. 

Although there are several moments when strategic silence can be used for a successful salary negotiation, not revealing your salary and taking time with an offer are two of the most important.

Concluding Remarks

Silence is often associated with stoicism, wisdom, and maturity. While those who do not know when to use silence are associated with giddiness, foolis, and childish behaviour. Those who do not know how to deal with silence can find it awkward and uncomfortable but harnessing silent moments during the interviewing process can be a very effective way to make your way to your first industry position. 

In conclusion, the 7 times to practice silence during the interviewing process are:

  1. When imposter syndrome sets in
  2. Right before the interview
  3. During introductions
  4. When someone else is talking
  5. If you forget what you are saying
  6. Immediately after a question is being asked
  7. During salary negotiations

To learn more about interviewing at the PhD level, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Alejandra Viviescas, PhD
Alejandra Viviescas, PhD

Alejandra holds a PhD in genetics. After finishing her graduate studies, she followed her passion for closing the communication gap between scientific researchers and the general public. Currently, as vice-president of development at Cheeky Scientist, she produces content that helps PhDs find success outside academia.

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