Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

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

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