Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

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.

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Written by Interviewer

June 7, 2013 at 05:32

Posted in Scratchpad

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