Hari Patience-Davies explains a storytelling tip she learned from stand-up comedians and The West Wing, and why you should always ask for a glass of water in a job interview

I remember watching an episode of The West Wing with my ex-husband. He was an aspiring stand-up and was always on the lookout for ways to improve his act. It was the episode that introduces Joshua Malina’s Will Bailey, the soon to be replacement for Rob Lowe’s Sam Seaborn.

Bailey is running an election campaign for a candidate who has recently died but is still on the ballot, something that’s considered a bit of an embarrassment to party leadership and Seaborn arrives to talk Bailey into shutting the campaign down, just in time to see him on stage at a press conference.

Here’s the scene on YouTube – apologies for the low quality, it’s not my upload:

My ex-husband paused the DVD.

“Did you see what he did there?”

I shrug. “He was good on stage?”

“He took a sip of water!”

My ex explained that Will Bailey bantering with the journalist about the distance they’d travelled to be there, then taking a sip of water while she asks her question was the ultimate body language expression of confidence.

Someone who takes a sip of water at their pace, taking a moment before answering an question is doing two things.

  1. They don’t seem worried or anxious about the question. Taking a sip of water in a relaxed manner is read by an audience as casual and confident body language.
  2. They’ve gained a few extra seconds to think about their answer before they have to speak.

Both of which are positives for any presenter, performer or candidate in a job interview. You want your audience (be they a theatre full of people or an interviewer seated across the table from you) to see you as confident and in control. And, especially if you have just been asked a difficult question, having a few extra seconds to think about your answer is incredibly valuable.

Similarly I once heard a story about how stand-up Jimmy Carr deals with hecklers. Carr said that his technique was to pause and repeat whatever had been heckled in a slow and unimpressed tone. This would, he said, show how unfunny the heckle actually was and ensure he had time to think of a suitable response.

It went unsaid (to my recollection, I couldn’t find anything online about this so I may be misremembering) that repeating the heckle back is also taking control of the conversation. When a heckler interrupts a stand-up, they are trying to distract them, to take the audience’s attention and the command of the room from them.

By staying in control – repeating back the heckle as if it is a least funny thing you have ever heard – and confident, the stand-up is denying the heckler’s attempt to take ownership of the room. They keep the audience’s attention and control of the situation.

You can use this approach when anyone asks you a difficult question or one you don’t have an immediate answer to – this is especially helpful for job interviews.

If you try and answer too quickly, without taking the time to consider what you want to say, you may end up hesitating or changing what you want to say mid-sentence. Even worse filler words (the ums, ahs, and errs of the world) may sneak into your delivery, making you sound uncertain and nervous. Many people unconsciously use filler words when they are thinking about what to say next. The sounds “fill” the gap in the conversation, but if you want to project confidence, filler words are kryptonite.

You want a few seconds to consider your answer. You could get those seconds by repeating the question back in a tone of contemplation or consideration. You could even take a sip of water as well.

For example:

Interviewer: Can you tell me about a time you overcame a problem at work?

Candidate: A time I overcame a problem at work? Okay. <Takes sip of water> A few years ago I was working at….

Even just testing that out now here at my deck with a stopwatch I can see that repeating the question and taking a sip of water gained me 5 seconds of thinking time. Your brain can do a lot in 5 seconds.

And so here is the lesson – to appear confident in a situation where people will be asking you questions, always try and have a glass of water or bottle of water to hand. If it’s a job interview, often the interviewer will ask before you begin if they can get you anything, and you should always say “Yes” to a glass of water.

But just in case they don’t ask, make sure you have a water bottle in your bag that you can put on the table at the start of the interview. It’s polite to ask permission, “Is it okay for me to have my water here?” but it’s a rare person who won’t allow water in a meeting room.

Another good tip is to make sure that your water bottle is not transparent – so that if you do run out of water, you can still take a fake sip if you need to. Please note that this doesn’t work with actual glasses of water – sipping from a glass the Interviewer can see is empty is more likely to get you classified as odd than confident.

Don’t do this with every question – keep it for the really hard ones you need the extra thinking time for. And don’t play with your water bottle or glass – if you’re not drinking from them, leave them alone. Anything else looks like a nervous habit.

But channelling your inner Will Bailey or Jimmy Carr, taking the time to consider your answer to a question by either repeating the question back or taking a sip of water – those habits can make you look confident, even if you don’t feel it.

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