Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Message Control

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Sometimes, when you’re interviewing someone, their emotions are all over the place. And sometimes, that’s good. A passionate audience member wants the object of their attention to be as enthusiastic as they are about whatever it is they share whether it’s music, cooking, science or whatever. It can also make for a lively interview.

In politics however, showing emotions is part of a strategy that seems to need surgical precision to be successful. It doesn’t mean emotions don’t get shown. It means politicians understand that people want people like them and but they also don’t want people who stray too far from whatever “being like them” means emotionally.

John Dean’s “scream” at the 2004 Iowa Democratic Caucauses was a perfect example. Dean and his base were fired up, but Dean was concerned over his poor finish behind John Kerry and John Edwards. His spontaneous expression of emotion in that battle cry that ended his speech to the party faithful (affected by a bout of flu and his unidirectional microphone) made him seem somehow emotionally unbalanced even to his base. Conversely, when Michael Dukakis lost to George Bush Sr. in 1988, it was because he didn’t show enough emotion when moderator Bernard Shaw asked him how he would feel if an escaped criminal raped and murdered his wife. Yes, we want our politicians to be in control of themselves, but many of his supporters thought he showed “too much” control to the point of having no emotion at all.

When interviewing someone running for office, the purpose isn’t to get them to reveal themselves emotionally. The purpose is to get them talking about why the voters should vote for them. And in the course of that conversation, the person, if they truly care about the office, the people and their own personal mission, will express emotion.

Some people express it freely. Others express it judiciously. Still others don’t express much at all. I’ve written about how listeners can detect emotion in what a speaker is saying versus how they are saying it. But face to face interviews are much more revealing in a way in that gives TV viewers an advantage over radio or print interviews.

A lot of this is old hat in light of TV shows like “Lie to Me”, but when watching someone respond to a question, you can learn as much from what they don’t do as from what they do. A person that has unchanging facial expressions, little to no body movements and little to no hand gestures is someone who has learned the fine art of personal message control. But just as too much emotion can turn off a constituency, too little with too few clues can make them wonder what’s going on inside. And for a politicians, it can be a choice between the worst of two world; either prove how sincere you are by being just a little too free with your feelings so that some people don’t take you as seriously as you wish. Or hold back everything and have people wonder if you are trustworthy.

I’m glad I just ask the questions.

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Written by Interviewer

March 17, 2014 at 12:30

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