The last 24 hours have been a whirlwind of reporting in the wake of the death of Nelson Mandela. It is interesting how news organizations have covered his passing. Most organizations have, rightly so, glorified his life and his legacy. The South Africa of today might not even exist had it not been for his release from Robben Island prison, his election as President and his founding of the Peace and Reconciliation commissions among other achievements.
But Mr. Mandela was a freedom fighter before he was an icon. In today’s parlance, he was a terrorist. In fact, Condelezza Rice, former Secretary of State under the Bush Administration, was embarrassed that until 2008, Mr. Mandela was on a CIA Terrorism Watchlist. She ordered him removed from it.
Getting back to the coverage, I heard not an opposing word regarding Mr. Mandela and his excellent works until the Canadian based news magazine, “Q” hosted by Jian Ghomeshi, and even then, the discussion didn’t change until more than halfway through the broadcast.
Interviewers are not fools. They may see themselves as truthtellers, but sometimes, they know they need backup. Indeed, permission, before they can speak contrary to the prevailing wind. That’s what Jian Ghomeshi did, but only after the start of his conversation with Princeton Professor and Black Activist Cornell West.
Jian gingerly, and I mean gingerly asked Mr. West about Mr. Mandela’s early years and if he could be considered a subversive? In light of the current praising, that was no doubt a tricky question to consider, let alone ask. Fortunately, Mr. West, in his usual bold and unapologetic style, recapped Mr. Mandela’s history as a black nationalist who was a counter-cultural hero that railed openly and constantly against the oppressive white government of South Africa.
He shined much light on what some would consider Mandela’s shadow self, a self many might choose not to admit, lest it would diminish him as the icon they need him to be. But Mandela himself fought against being lionized and West told the story of how he warned South Africans during a speech that they must not be complicit in the “SantaClausization” of the man. In a later meeting, West was concerned that Mandela might have been offended. In fact, Mandela told West he agreed and told him to continue speaking his truth.
As West spoke, you could hear Jian getting more and more comfortable with asking about Mandela the warrior and Mandela the subversive. By the end, he almost sounded relived and I suspect, a little liberated.
When a person that we consider great dies, just like when a person we consider evil dies, we don’t do ourselves, let alone them justice, if we don’t stretch to understand the full measure of the man or woman. But an interviewer doesn’t always have the juice by themselves to look in both directions. Sometimes, they need help. But the fact the Mr. Ghomeshi knew he wanted to explore Mr. Mandela’s other side, and that he sought out Cornell West to help him do it gets him mass props from this interviewer.
One element of an interview is the ability of the interviewee to speak. I don’t mean any of the elements of speech per se, like articulation, pitch or volume. I’m talking more about their ability to call upon the words they want from the thoughts they’re thinking in response to the questions they hear. Some people do this so smoothly and effortlessly that as an interviewer, I sometimes feel the only way I can sound as good as them is to have my questions written down. There is a knack to being able to respond cogently, quickly and logically to a question.
Stress and lack of practice can get in the way. Both can make an interviewee stumble, meaning, they can’t find the words they want. You can see it as they talk, editing as they are speaking, changing words that are already on the way out of their mouths because they realize another word would say it better. But not realizing you can’t pull misspoken words back and that mixing it up can make them sound less rather than more confident.
Speaking styles develop over a lifetime, and whether an interviewee’s words flow like butter or sound like a cold lawnmower, listeners are more likely to forgive them if they sound passionate and sincere. There is a sort of persistence of vision for listening that people employ when they are really trying to hear the message of a speaker, regardless of how its being delivered. It’s true that this age has trained us to not have much patience for things without high production values, like music, commercials or interviews. But seasoned listeners can drill down through problems a speaker may be having to why they are saying what they are saying rather than how they are saying it.
A good interviewer can help the audience and a struggling interviewee. The interviewer, first, has to get the essence of what the guest is trying to say because they don’t want to change the message. And, they don’t want to put words the guest doesn’t intend in their mouths. But if they listen closely to the response, they can delicately and respectfully, guide the guest toward the answer they’re trying to get to. They can ask short follow up questions. They can paraphrase tentative answers to help the guest feel calm and confident. It might be comparable to someone holding up a bicycle while the rider focuses on pedaling.
Some schools of thought disagree with this. They say an interviewee is completely responsible for what they say and how they say it and by the interviewer interjecting themselves into the interviewee’s message, even if they’re intending to help it stay on point, they are changing it and should butt out. But the purpose of a conversation that is shared with an audience is for the audience to come away richer somehow, not frustrated. And although they they may have compassion for a rambling and halting speaker, compassion isn’t understand. An interviewer helping a guest be understood is one of the tasks a good interviewer performs in the service to the message and the listener.
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