Thinking in Public Is Not Done

William Safire writes:

When was the last time you saw a person stop and think on television?

Thinking in public is just not done. When asked a question or given some other verbal or visual cue, a panelist or interviewee will bark out an instantaneous answer. Talking points will march out smartly, often backed up by a fact or a figure to display a certain certitude.

But in a subjunctive mood, we can ask: What if a candidate, expert or pundit were to lean back in the hot seat, look up at the ceiling, wrinkle the brow, steeple the fingers — and say nothing for four or five seconds?

Unprepared! the audience expecting instant profundity would cry.

Yes. This is also true in other contexts.

Most of us, when asked a question in a public setting like in a meeting, draw upon pre-generated thoughts or ideas and slightly massage it to fit the topic at hand.

In any social situation with three or more people, I think it’s difficult to think new thoughts because we are so hung up on portraying ourselves as smart or funny. Plus, our fear of embarrassment is such that we don’t take risks in choosing what we say. We offer derivative, overly "safe" ideas as a result. This is why I find group conversations usually unsatisfying from an intellectual perspective.

Thinking and communicating this thinking are independent jobs, and hard to do simultaneously. When thrust under the spotlight, even if it’s the soft focus of friends, most of us focus on communicating pre-existing thoughts, and not actually thinking.

I respond to the above logic in two ways:

a) create substantial amounts of alone time so that I can think and read and write by myself. If I don’t set aside time to reflect, I only live in the chaos of the moment and can never think hard with a clear mind.

b) favor one-on-one conversations over group settings if the task at hand is brainstorming or idea generation. One-on-ones are more likely immune to challenges of group convos.

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7 comments on “Thinking in Public Is Not Done
  • Ben,

    You provide great approaches to the problem of looking unprepared in the limelight (or otherwise) and avoiding canned responses.

    Viewed in another light, the person who takes a few (or several) seconds to think before answering also separates himself from the rest. The wait can have a suspense effect making the response seem more in depth. Even within one conversation /interview/speech, varying response patterns can keep the audience on their toes.

    Yet despite planned tactfulness in conversational style, I would argue that response time also varies by culture. Context matters. Lack of preparation may be an initial judgment, but possibly a premature one based on your location in the world.

  • Interesting observation, to which I have two reactions. First is that at least in low-key conversation, in my experience, if you’re asked a question and take a few seconds to formulate a good response, people will wait for you. And as Akshay says, this can have the effect of making you seem more confident and in control of the situation.

    Second, as an aspiring mathematician, one of the things I really like about math talks is that when you’re giving a talk and someone asks a question, it’s considered completely appropriate to pause, think for five seconds, and say, “Hm, that’s an interesting question. I really don’t know the answer; I’ll have to think about it.”

  • Ben:

    So what do you consider your blog? A series of several one-to-one conversations (disguised as comments, and you sometimes respond, sometimes not)? A one-to-many broadcast? Just wondering. 🙂

    Most people on TV are primed in advance with their questions. They speak immediately because they are prepared with answers and because time is precious on real-time TV (hence the annoying interruptions by the interviewers along the lines of ‘I am sorry we have to leave it there’). This is one reason why we do not see people think.

    That said even when people are not primed, the tendency is to want to appear instantly knowledgeable (or smart or funny, as you mention). See what happened when BBC interviewed the wrong guy on live TV!

    Your last two points are spot-on but I think those who think and challenge their own thinking to sharpen their points, do some form of these mental hygiene exercises anyway. What of the people who speak without thinking and for whom, their own company is a big burden? Can they be converted? How?

  • Looks like Mr.Saffire really won’t let the current media business model – one built on frailties – to get by -) Way too much silliness goes around in the media, in the garb of creativity.

    The fact is serious people don’t jump to get on air. You’ll have the briefest of conversations if thinkers are let in. Media wants just something, anything, to fill between commercials. Serious people cost more and they certainly don’t need 15 seconds of fame. That is the reason why you see more turncoat analysts on CNBC, not as much Warren Buffet or George Soros spewing timeless wisdom. You wait for their annual newsletters in earnest, pay huge amounts for a dinner seat with them.

    I agree thinking while communicating is indeed difficult, but believe it can be improved by practice. Most times, we are only *expected* to give off the top, impulsive responses. It’s not that most don’t think while they communicate; they hardly do, even otherwise. The world seems to be ok with that. The hardest part is in retrieving and fusing together the stored sequence of nuggets (on a topic) strewn across the cerebral database. Unfortunately Oracle stack (of relational database) is tooled only for enterprise computing; not yet designed for neural networks. Let’s hope someday artificial intelligence will fill that void. Till then as you say, we may have to make do with practice turfs like one on one conversation, alone time and other reflective situations.

    Yet another aspect is people always get tagged between two zones of concentration. When they go scurrying down a thought tunnel they are seen as inarticulate if not dumb. When they come out of it ready to talk, they’re grouped amongst the authoritative that no one dare to question.

  • I second the alone time list item. I try for an hour a night before bed myself, with everything turned off, it is hard to get it in though. I wish I had more but there are distractions, it is really hard for me to focus on my current problems too instead of just thinking about anything, when I can it does pay off though.

  • @ “What if a candidate, expert or pundit were to lean back in the hot seat, look up at the ceiling, wrinkle the brow, steeple the fingers — and say nothing for four or five seconds?”

    William F. Buckley, Jr. did this all the time on Firing Line, not that I would use the contortions of his bug-eyed, rictus forming mug as a model for TV presentation.

    The five-second delay can be an effective dramatic device, as any successful actor or orator will tell you.

    It’s like teasing that last moment of tension before the righteous ‘orgasm.’

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