Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Run it Down or Let it Go?

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Sirens

I talk about interviewing as if the interviewer is like a Greek warrior, always at the top of their game. But it’s not always that simple or affirming.  Sometimes, most times, an interview is a conversation.  But sometimes, it’s a hunt. It’s seek and evade.  Sometimes, the interviewer fails to get to the truth or the point because they’ve been diverted or hall of mirrored. And when you realize its happened, it doesn’t feel good.

The most common way is when an interviewer asks a simple question, and what they get is a long and elaborate backstory that provides deep and wide context of the situation.  The problem is that it offers everything except an answer to the question.  But it may be so smoothly or forcefully delivered that two things happen in the interviewer’s mind.  Either they think, “What was my question again?  I don’t remember but that sure was a rich, elaborate and coloful reply” or “I know that wasn’t an answer.  But after all that, I’m just going to let that non-answer go and move onto the next question”.

What should be going through the interviewer’s mind is, “I’ll be damned … you don’t have a clue, do you?” “You are trying to blow smoke up my ass, aren’t you?”  “Are you avoiding me on purpose?”  What should be going through the interviewer’s mind is “You didn’t answer the question, so I’m going to ask it again.  Maybe a different way, but it’s coming.  Get ready”.  It should be said though that it can also be the case that the interviewer didn’t ask the question clearly enough, so the interviewee misunderstood it.  So they paint around the center because they don’t really know what you want.  But in the end, an answer that’s not an answer can’t explain away the fact that there is no “there” there.  What that means for the interview recording session is large chunks of the conversation end up in the delete folder.  For a live audience, it can leave them trying to find the point in huge bubbles of nothing.

That doesn’t mean an answer might not be in there, though.  Sometimes, an interviewee will answer your question by first repeating it in some way, give a big block of history and finally, summarize their answer.  When you’re trying to get to the essence of their answer, many interviewers/editors will connect the beginning to the end and cut out the middle with little change in the overall message, which can be a plus.

For those times though when the result isn’t so neat and clean, you may have to repeat your question.  And asking the same question can piss off an interviewee, especially if they’re intention was to get you off track.  And interviewing etiquette is a lot like any other kind of social etiquette; when somebody is doing something unacceptable, watching them do it in a bald faced kind of way is almost as socially unacceptable as whatever they’re doing that you’re staring at.  But the problem isn’t you acknowledging the breaking of convention, it’s them breaking it.  So if they get mad because you caught them not doing something they implied they were qualified to do when they agreed to talk with you, the problem is theirs not yours.

But of course, like Odysseus, you have to get past the silver tongued devils first.

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Written by Interviewer

March 4, 2014 at 12:17

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