Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Stump the Chump

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I sometimes talk about the “dark art” aspects of journalism and interviewing.  This one is firmly rooted in the “How To’s” of discrediting an interviewee and making yourself sound smarter or more of an authority than you are.  Stump the Chump means asking questions, or pursuing lines of questioning that, on some occasions, are rhetorical and on other occasions, esoteric.  But both are intended to throw the interviewee way off their game.

How?  I have conducted interviews with people about to start a new job.  Since these people have worked very hard for this job, a listener might assume that they must have done all of their due diligence to learn about every aspect of it.  I mean, that is what the idea of “hitting the ground running” is all about.  An employer or a constituency wants to be confident that the person they have just put in this important position knows as much about it as the person about to leave it so there can be as little disruption as possible.

Journalists and interviewers can exploit this assumption to the extreme however by asking the interviewee questions purposely engineered to be outside of their knowledge.  For example, let’s say the interviewee will be part of a department that is responsible for an interactive system that updates the public on something or other.  If there have been changes to that system, or if it has been down for maintenance, a Stump the Chump question might be, “So, what can you tell me about XYZ system, and why has it been down so long?”  It’s possible that the interviewee will know about XYZ system, but it is much more likely that they don’t because they have been overly occupied in learning the broader aspects of the job; the direct responsibilities of their soon to be predecessor, the politics of the position, the specific day to day requirements, organizational structure and so forth.

But a question that seems to be germane to their duties that they have difficulty answering can make them sound unsure at best and incompetent at worst.

A good interviewer spends at least hours, and probably days plotting a course through the interviewee’s experience with a list of questions.  With that kind of birds-eye view of the interviewee, a general knowledge of the job and an overall understanding of the culture as it relates to both, interviewers can cogently test an interviewee’s knowledge in a way the listener can relate to and evaluate.

But although journalists and interviewers are intelligent and savvy enough to discover and formulate legitimate questions that the interviewee considers expertly posed, they are not the experts they are interviewing.  Journalist and interviewers with the intention to embarrass interviewees can find themselves on thin ice if they pursue this tact.  And those experts can fight back against Stump the Chump questions.

The simplest way is to simply ask them to “explain” what they mean.  Unless the interviewer has relatively deep knowledge of the inner workings of the issue, they may find themselves stuck and unable to further explain their question.  A variation of this is if the interviewee reasks the interviewer’s question “for the purposes of clarity” in an equally complex way but from a different technical direction.  Since the interviewer may have only investigated one aspect of the problem, an interviewee that forces them to repose the question from another direction can shut down that line of questioning.

Another way the interviewee can avoid being cornered is to say something along the lines of “I don’t have an answer for that right now, but I would be glad to get back to you or one of your staff with an answer/solution before the end of the day”.  This is a good come back because it shows that although they don’t know,  they promise to find out.  This can give them credibility with listeners.

Most interviewers are professional, meaning, their intention is to not think for the listeners.  That can mean not trying to funnel or filter audience thinking through their own by way of questions that emphasize one aspect of the interviewee or denigrating others aspects.  A professional interviewer asks open, honest, straightforward questions with no subtext on the assumption that the audience is intelligent and can come to their own opinions about the interviewee, their experience and qualifications for the position.  Stump the Chump questions are asked by amateurs who lack confidence or so-called professionals with an agenda.

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Written by Interviewer

January 21, 2014 at 06:57

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