Why you need to pause before answering an interview question

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Interviewer: “Tell me about a time when you had to overcome an obstacle to get something done?”

*Pause for 5 seconds*






You: “Ok, I can tell you about a time when I…”

Wow, that was awkward! When’s the last time you paused for 5 full seconds before answering an interview question?

It seems like a long time, especially when your nerves are acting up. Every second that ticks by feels like an eternity. Soon, your mind races with thoughts like:

“I bet the interviewer is bored.”

“Why am I taking so long?”

“What if he/she thinks I’m incompetent?” But our perception of time is distorted when we are under pressure. What feels like an eternity to us often feels like a natural pause to the interviewer.

Most importantly, spending a few seconds to pause before answering an interview question offers 3 major benefits that students often overlook:

  1. Project confidence and control over the situation
  2. Extra time to think about what you will say
  3. Extra time to think about how you will deliver your content

Benefit #1: Confidence

Projecting confidence is a key driver to acing interviews and leaving lasting impressions. And for better or worse, the way we speak is interpreted as a signal of our confidence. Speaking with confidence prompts other (often more senior people) to take you seriously despite the age difference.

As a thought experiment, consider the following question:

“Tell me about a time when you had to overcome an obstacle to get something done?” How would a typical college student answer this classic behavioral question? How would you answer the question? Go on, try it.

Now, here’s the interesting part of the experiment. How would an executive answer this question? People like President Obama, Tim Cook (CEO of Apple), Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook), etc.

For example, Obama is commonly referred to as one of the greatest speakers of our time. During a Town Hall Q&A session with citizens, he spoke with a leisurely cadence and paused briefly after each question. These powerful speaking habits help him better connect with his audience and leave a lasting impression as a thoughtful, confident commander-in-chief.

Similarly, building and projecting confidence is important to making a positive impact on the interviewer. While there are many ways to achieve this, to start we can take a page out of the executive playbook: pause after a challenging question and speak slowly. If executives don’t jump into questions immediately, you probably don’t need to either.

Benefit #2: Extra time to think about what you will say

Many people believe in relying on instincts or “shooting from the hip”. While interviews are a great place to leverage your instincts to answer challenging questions, I find myself responding with higher quality answers by pairing instinct with clear thinking.

When asked a question, I usually have a thought that pops into my head - my instinct. Rather than immediately saying exactly what just crossed my mind, I pause.

During this short pause, I think about what I want to say and how I can make it an even better response to the interviewer’s question. I think about what everyone else will respond with -- what is the obvious (and usually boring) answer to this question? How can I take my initial seedling of a thought and transform it into a memorable response to blow the interviewer away.

Rarely do I nail this, but it’s an effort worth pursuing with any challenging interview question. And pausing gives me those precious, extra few seconds to think a little more deeply about my first instinctual response.

When given a question, I can produce a C answer immediately (instinct), a B answer after a short pause (instinct + clear thinking), and an A answer with a few hours (deep thinking). Unfortunately most interviewers won’t allow for hours of thinking, so settling for B-grade answers is my next best alternative.

Benefit #3: Extra time to think about content delivery

How you phrase your response is one of the most overlooked parts of answering interview questions.

Adding structure to any interview response helps communicate your ideas clearly and effectively. Through the management consulting recruiting process during my junior and senior year, I had to repeatedly practice structuring my responses.

This is because consulting firms hire recent graduates and throw them into positions where they are required to present to senior executives (VPs, CEO, CFO, board members, etc.) on a semi-regular basis.

Executives are notoriously short on time. Nothing bothers them more than people who ramble and can’t deliver impactful, relevant insights. The skill of structuring responses (along with speaking slowly and clearly) is rolled up into a broader category of skills called “executive communication.”

Therefore, when recruiting new talent, consulting firms look for people who are effective at communicating clearly. There’s a lot that goes into executive communication, but for a healthy start try focusing on the following 2 tactics:

  • Answer first: start your response with the most important headline of your idea
  • Structure: present your response according to a logical structure or progression of ideas

Answer this question as you normally would: “Why do you want to work for [your dream company/job] ?” Now, take 2 minutes and identify the headline of your idea and a logical structure to present your ideas. Maybe it makes sense to present your ideas chronologically, or perhaps one idea naturally flows to the next.

It’s very similar to structuring an essay -- start with the thesis statement and present a logical flow of ideas from there. Any common sense structure will work. Once you have it down, try presenting your response again.

It’s a world of a difference.

This is a skill that requires a years of practice to perfect. You will not become a professional at executive communication in a few months, but you can certainly improve.

During an interview, take a few seconds to think about how you will present your response. Use a headline and structure -- impress your interviewer with communication clarity. Eventually with enough practice this will become second nature to how you think.

How long do I pause?

The length of your pause is dependent on each specific situation. In a classic management consulting case interview, it is acceptable (and expected) to pause for 30 to 60 seconds before giving your first answer.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are questions that interviewers expect candidates to have thought of beforehand -- eg. “tell me about yourself” or “walk me through your resume”.

It doesn’t make sense to take a medium or long pause before answering these questions as you should know the answer. That being said, just because you know the answer doesn’t mean you should trip yourself up by speaking to quickly. A short pause and slower speaking cadence is always helpful in projecting confidence.

These are two extreme examples, but most interview questions will fall somewhere in between. My approach is to pause for as long as I need to get to a quality answer, within reason. Everyone has their own definition of how long “within reason” should be.

For a trickier behavioral interview question, I’m willing to think for up to 10-15 seconds. That feels like a lifetime in an interview, but I would rather knock it out of the park with my response than shave off a few seconds.

One popular tactic to buy more time is to use a filler phrase like “hmm, that’s an interesting question,” or “wow, great question! I’ve never heard that before.” These phrases help break the silence after the interviewer poses a question and buy you time to come up with a response.

Lastly, make sure to vary your filler phrases and pausing duration throughout any given interview. You don’t want to come across as robotic because you wait 11 seconds and say “hmm, that’s an interesting question” after each question.

This entire post might sound obvious, but the reality is very few people leverage pausing to their advantage. Strategically pausing is a game changer in interviews and communication, and is worth your intentional investment.

As you practice, focus on pausing and thinking before jumping into a response. And when you’re in an intense interview, remember to take some time to slow down and think -- it’s always worth it.

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