Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Archive for June 2013

Less is More

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Here it is

Michelle Martin is the host of the NPR program “Tell me More.” And as she was interviewing Columbia University’s Howard French, the subject of President Obama came up. She was discussing with Mr. French why Mr. Obama wasn’t visiting Kenya during his most recent Africa trip. Her guest referenced his extraordinary background, and Ms. Martin said she assumed that most people know his history, so she would not to go into it.  And she didn’t, either in-depth or briefly. The conversation continued.

I loved this. This is an example of how an interviewer or a program host should treat their audience; on the assumption that the people listening are engaged with current events. At the very least, I assume Ms. Martin assumes that if she is speaking with someone about something interesting and she refers to some of the details without spelling them out, her audience will look them up themselves. This lets the guest be there for the reason the guest is there, which is to talk in-depth and from their body of experience about the topic, not to give a freshman level primer to bring a listener up to full speed. This is unlike some hosts or interviewers who detour from the main story to give context that they assume the audience not only doesn’t know but won’t seek out.

There is, of course, a difference between giving context for something immediate versus not.   A listener can catch up on the President’s connection to the African continent, for example, as part of casual reading and not lose anything not knowing it as they listen to Mr. French.  A gay couple, by contrast, not understanding their federal benefits are good if they marry in Washington but not if they move to Oregon isn’t something they want to be reading in a magazine as they’re crossing south over the Columbia River.  There, context needs to be part of the discussion.

And that gets me back to Ms. Martin.  She gives her listeners credit for being curious and intelligent which is a very high compliment considering every other broadcast and marketing medium assumes people operate at a 6th or 7th grade comprehension level. Frankly, someone who isn’t curious or intelligent probably isn’t listening to her program or programs like it.

Written by Interviewer

June 29, 2013 at 13:33

Posted in Scratchpad

What I Can Talk About

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You can tell you’re talking to a professional if, in the course of the interview, they say something like “What I can talk about is …” But it’s not a good sign about how the interview is going. I’ve talked a lot about what interviewers do to get an interviewee on track. But sometimes, an interviewee has to get an interviewer back on track. Usually, an interviewee says this when an interviewer is getting too personal, or asking the interviewee to talk about things beyond their realm.

I just listed to John Goodman being interviewed for his part as Sully in Monsters University. Out of the corner of my ear, I heard him say this phrase, which to me, sounded like a car alarm going off, and I swung around in my chair. One of the CBS This Morning anchors had asked him something like, did he have any idea the movie would be as successful as it had become. And Mr. Goodman spoke to what he knew, which was his passion for the part. How could he possibly have known whether the movie would’ve been successful? It’s the kind of blue sky, prognosticator question that makes the audience tear out their hair. Interviewers ask stuff like that when they don’t have anything more substantive to ask. Or maybe, in that situation, they ask it because their producer has only given them two minutes for this segment before the break, “So get him to say something cutesy or something deep, but remember, only two minutes.”

I once snagged an interview with Kenny Rogers. He was playing in Nashua, NH and I was working at a closed circuit radio station near Boston. When I got there, it was a press pool type of situation. A side room had been set up for the media and there were probably about 15 or twenty reporters from different media there. I had three or four questions. And this was in the days before the Internet, so I had gone to the library and looked up newsclips about him. My questions were about how his style had changed since he had left The First Edition, and about his strained relationship with his daughter. And even though I was new to interviewing, I noticed everybody else was asking questions about his tennis game. They were yukking it up. I guess they were thinking, “We’re just shooting the shit with Kenny,” like this opportunity comes up everyday. But I thought, “What the Hell?” I knew this was work, so I asked my questions. When he started to answer, everybody dropped their heads and started writing. When it was done, and he left to get ready for his show, his publicity person came up to me and said, “You asked the best questions.”

I’m not working at a CBS or a CNN. But hackers who created Linux don’t work for Microsoft either. What I’m saying is the rules for being good at what you do aren’t just the domain of the big names. Little gals and guys out here with podcasts and field recorders and Audacity can do it good, and do it right. And sometimes, that not only means asking questions with meat, but not trying to take your guest outside of where they want or need to be. Only your research can help you draw those boundaries. And if you’ve done a good job, you’ll be surprised at just how big that space can be.

P.S. About gals doing it good and right, Constance A. Dunn on Soundcloud is doing some great interviews with Serbian thinkers and musicians. Ren Green at KBOO is rocking her author interviews on her new podcast, “Experience Points”, just like Courtney Crosslin with her guests at and Deanna Woodward, The Veteran’s Coach. Give them all a listen.

Getting Interviewed

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I used to wonder why I rarely heard interviewers getting interviewed.  But since focusing on the interviewing aspect of my skillset, journalism and reportage, I realize the answers are pretty simple.  One, you have the control.  The people you talk to are accountable to you.  And, after they’re finished talking, you have their reputation in your hands when it’s time to edit them for public consumption.  That kind of trust depends on the interviewer’s reputation.  People won’t come to you if they think you don’t know what you’re doing, or if you’re doing it for vindictive or nefarious purposes.  So an interviewer who is used to being the only one doing the listening isn’t always sure if others will be as professional and meticulous.  It might not be fair, but it comes down to “nobody will do it as good as me” thinking.  So interviewers are naturally hesitant to become interviewees.

The other thing has to do with how personal will the interviewer let themselves be.  Interviewers know how to get to the personal parts of the people they’re talking to.  There really is technique to it.  In “The Republic”, Socrates famously said that nobody knows better how to commit a specific type of crime than someone who has a specific type of skill.  Hence, nobody knows how to kill better than a doctor, to rob better than a policeman, etc.  And, although conversationalism isn’t a crime, drawing people out requires an innate understanding of people, and actively applying that understanding in a Dale Carnagie kind of way.

So turning that tool on the toolmaker can cause all kinds of walls to go up and filters to snap in place.  But then, the interviewer, of all people, should simultaneously understand how important disclosure, humanity and sincerity should be when talking to someone who is talking to you for the sake of an unseen audience.  They should, anyway.

Written by Interviewer

June 23, 2013 at 03:17

Interview School in a Box

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That’s what a friend recently called this blog. She wants to start doing interviews and knew I was blogging about interviewing. So she visited and read a few posts, and hit me with that description the next time I saw her. I thought it was pretty clever.

When I listen to an interviewer interviewing, I think about all of the people they talk to, want to talk to, have talked to. I think about all of the subjects they have broached. And I wonder, are they expanded by those conversations? I used to think the same thing when I worked in news. A reporter, like an interviewer, talks to many people much more deeply about a much wider variety of subjects than other people. That, in part, is what gives them currency to the people who want to listen to them. They have something to say or tell that the average person doesn’t know but might want to know. And I have said before that an interviewer is merely a conduit from the person being interviewed to the person listening to the interview.

But talking about the person in the middle now, the interviewer, are they in any way changed by their conversation with Gandhi, or the Dalai Lama, or Hillary Clinton or George Winston, or Dr. Jonas Salk? I mean, the interview is a kind of anomaly to the story arc we’ve all grown up with. You know that arc; a situation contains a protagonist, an antagonist, a series of crises, revelations, surmounts, rewards … in other words, The Hero’s Journey. We expect all of the people in the story to be changed, which is supposed to make us ask ourselves if we’ve changed somehow. An interviewer is only supposed to help the person telling the story tell how they’ve changed though. And the listener is supposed to consider how their story changed them. We only tend to think about how two of the three people in that dynamic have changed.  The interviewer is crucial and at the same time, invisible and disposable.

But when the microphones are off and the studio is dark, and the interviewer is thinking about being an interviewer, are they thinking about what it means to be a human in conversation with a Gandhi or a Dalai Lama or a Hillary Clinton or a George Winston or a Dr. Jonas Salk, and “My God, their stories have filled my head and made me a better person!” Are they telling themselves “I will think more about philosophy or the environment or politics or the judicial system or childhood development or famine or elder abuse because I just talked to a philosopher or an activist or a senator or a judge or a pediatrician or a nutritionist or geriatrician.” Or are they thinking more pedestrian stuff like, will interviewee will show up on time? Or how they can’t really think deeply about what the guest is saying because they’re thinking instead about how the facility has just changed how staff people can now book studio time, or an upcoming doctor’s appointment or relationship problems? Or maybe they’re simply thinking, “This isn’t where my head is right now.”

It is such a gift to be able to talk to such accomplished people who, under normal circumstances, one would never, ever have the chance to meet, let alone talk to. But I wonder if interviewers, like professional photographers, are kind of doomed to never get the chance to experience the people they are with because they are professionally driven instead to make sure they present them well to their audience. Seeing or hearing people through viewfinders or headphones is not experiencing those people.  But I wonder if that’s the trade off.

Written by Interviewer

June 13, 2013 at 01:23

A Tricky Proposition

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An interview, at best, is a tricky proposition. On one hand, you want it to be free, to go where it will. On the other, you want a level of predictability, meaning, you want the questions you ask to be answered. But there are dangers afoot. Among the many, there is a danger of being too jocular with a willing guest. Like a parent that feeds into a kid’s excitement that it has adult attention, too much playing ramps up the tension until the situation is out of control and you’re exhausted or frustrated and the kid is in their room. I’ve heard several interviews like this recently, and I’ve listened to how the interviewer has tried to rein the guest back in.

First, they laugh and joke and ride the whitewater of a guest’s stream of consciousness. For those first few moments, they may think they have plenty of time to get to their main questions, so they assume they’re OK with a little ridiculousness. But at some point, they realize they need to get on with their job which is reminding the interviewee that their job is to tell the story they came to tell. So, some interviewers say something outrageous in an attempt to stop the momentum, like using dynamite to blow out an oilwell fire. It’s in the spirit of the train the guest was riding but to some extent, out of character for the interviewer and over the top as to mildly shock the guest into a stunned silence. At that point, the interviewer must quickly change the mood by shifting the subject to the questions that represent the meat of the interview.

Something else that can derail an interview is the interviewee who wants to relate everything the interviewer says back to the interviewer. It’s sort of the non clinical version of the, “How does that make you feel?” question. Interviews aren’t about the interviewer. And if the interviewer can’t get the interviewee to talk about themselves, they may have to stun gun the interviewee with one of their secret weapon questions; one or two questions that are squirreled away just in case, that are intensely personal and border rudeness but are the amyl nitrate of interview resuscitation. They get the interviewee thinking about themselves again, even if it means they get angry and defensive. Most interviewers who can’t get the guest to stop avoiding the question and aren’t ready to move to the next question, would prefer to do this and mop up with damage control as a testimony of their ability to save a conversation rather than let an interviewee get away with fogging.

Over use of metaphors is another problem for an interviewer, especially if they are so esoteric that guests themselves get lost trying to relate it to whatever was supposed to be the point. Interviewers can’t play this game too long, or they’ll get pulled down that rabbit hole too, and pretty soon, neither they or the guest know where they are. “I don’t know how we got here” is a phrase you’ll hear when both have gotten lost, and it’s not pretty. Plus, time has been wasted and the audience is annoyed. The best way to deal with that is to drop a gear in speed and tone to remind guests microphones are hot and the clock is ticking. “But seriously,” is usually all you have to say, since if you’re interviewing a guest, especially if they’re a professional of some sort, they’ve probably been interviewed before and know you’re just doing your job. Of course, you want to have fun. Of course, you are trying to tell their story. But if they’re there, they know they’re supposed to be helping you tell it.

Besides, as the interviewer, you should have two concerns. First is the interview. But the second equally important consideration is editing. If there are too may detours, your interview will be a nightmare to edit, and we both know it.

Yes, interviews can be tricky propositions. That’s what makes them great, and scarey sometimes.

Written by Interviewer

June 7, 2013 at 05:32

Posted in Scratchpad

Simple Questions

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I worked for Armed Forces Television, and one of my jobs as a member of the News Department was to host an interview program. I worked on a small post and everybody watched American TV because it was familiar and reminded military and their family of home. And because it was in English. So we kind of had a captive audience.

Whenever anything happened on post, we were almost always behind the curve because the grapevine had already spread it all over before station politics had the testicles to speak of it too. As an aside, although it called itself a “News” department, it wasn’t really news. It was more like storytelling, which BTW, isn’t always immediate or proactive.  But, considering that the military can be an insular culture, even to itself and trusting of no one, it’s no small leap of faith to give a pocket of soldiers TV cameras and microphones and satellite dishes, even if they aren’t doing investigative journalism. You can still have scandal, and they can be caused by the smallest things.

Anyway, regarding this one particular incident, a military police officer had discharged a weapon in the military police arms room. For those who don’t know, an arms room is where soldiers go to be issued weapons and ammunition for duty requiring them to be armed, and turn in weapons and ammunition when the duty is completed.

So, the rumor was that a weapon had been fired. And since I was hosting a weekly, call in interview program with the Post Commander, I asked if this was true. It was a simple question. But there was a lot of weather behind it.

For one, the station commander and the administrative staff didn’t particularly like this commander’s style. He was belittling and a bit bullyish. Plus, some of them really wanted to broadcast news, not pabalum from the public affairs office. Also, I had developed some credibility as a reporter, so they must’ve thought I’d be good as a conduit between the community and the commander. Finally, the station knew me and this commander didn’t get along. So, I also believe they used me as a stick to poke him. I knew that was true because others who heard of the incident asked me to ask him on the program. I asked my supervisor first if it was OK to bring it up and she said yes. Other people said putting the commander on the spot would be disrespectful. But, I was a journalist and I was conferring with a supervisory journalist at a network broadcast station. Regardless of it being a military facility, it was one of those times when you follow the other professional track, and I was OK with that. Years later, I discovered a letter from him, written to my commander, saying how he thought I was terrible at my job and how he wanted me replaced. Funny thing is, I interviewed him for several more months after that until the program was mysteriously ended.  

So, anyway, I asked the question, “Sir, what happened in the arms room?” And as I remember, what followed was a long drawn out nothing of an answer, followed by a short but obvious castigation of me, on live TV.

I never did find out why the weapon was discharged. Was it accidental? Was it intentional. Were there injuries? What changes would be made to arms room protocols? But besides learning the brutal power of simple questions, I also learned that even when you’re inside an organization, you can’t always find out the truth.

You may know people are using you. Or you may have no love for the person you’re talking to. But the question still needs to be asked. And the simpler, with the least number of syllables and the flattest inflection and the most direct eye contact, the better.

It is one of my proudest moments.

Written by Interviewer

June 1, 2013 at 03:40