Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Archive for April 2022

I Can Live with That

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I’ve been doing candidate interviews as a public service since 2014. I expect that since then, I’ve probably talked with nearly 300 candidates. And with each interview, I am again reminded and amazed by how candidates respond to questions. Some are grateful to be asked things they haven’t been asked before. Others are clearly annoyed by questions they consider pedantic or pedestrian. Others go as far as making it clear to you that they consider some questions much more intelligent than others. Such is the nature of political candidates and political candidate interviews.

But something no candidate likes, and all candidates stumble over, are questions they should know something about but don’t. And this goes back to one of the historic conundrums candidates face when running for office; do they focus on larger issues or do they focus on local issues? Because a candidate that goes to the legislature with the intention, Jimmy Stewart style, of being a man for all of the people, looks at every vote in the big picture. But, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, the lesson of former US Representative David Mann is instructive. Mann, a democrat, was elected to the US House in the early-90s by the people of his Cincinnati district. Once there however, his constituents accused him of voting for issues that weren’t their issues, namely NAFTA. In other words, as far as they were concerned, he forget who he was working for. And when House elections rolled around again, he was essentially yanked and replaced by a republican. It’s an economic calculation. As a politician, you have to weigh how much big picture stuff will your constituents stomach vs how much local stuff will your legislative colleagues stomach. Tip too far in one direction and you risk losing your moorings from the other direction. And that has a tendency to determine where you expertise will lie.

But, of course, I don’t care about any of that. I ask questions on subjects a candidate running for that office may encounter, esp. if the incumbent already has. And since the very nature of politics is dealing with the unexpected, they may eventually encounter … everything. Legislator A in House District 17 may have to vote on an issue affecting the rest of the state. But her constituents hate the legislation. Where should legislator A’s loyalties lie; in serving the greater good or in making sure her little square of bread is safely buttered? So if I ask candidate A about a possible Senate vote on regulations for business, even as they’re from a rural district feeling industrialized parts of the state have problems they don’t, and excessive regulations are killing their way of life, and candidate A decided to fills the answer with silence, punctuated with a lot of “ummmmms” because they haven’t really thought about the big picture, it’s going to be interesting.

From my POV, this is either someone who needs to do more prep before they venture another interview, or someone who is totally reliant on the “from the people” narrative to the extreme, meaning, they know as much about the complex issue in question as the “average” person. Since “I am them and they are me,” the unspoken logic goes, “my voters don’t want some political insider anyway.” Some candidates have even implied that the founders came from farmers who did just fine. And nearly three centuries ago, that worked. But in 2022 America, as it relates to a host of complex issues, study after study shows that average knowledge is not that impressive and in a legislative setting, can even be a little dangerous since no votes can afford to be cast in a vacuum.

So, I sometimes end up annoying candidates. I’m not trying to. But when it comes to drawing out answers from someone who wants to do things in your name, have reign over your money and control the lives of you and your loved ones for generations to come, it’s an occasional reaction I can totally live with.

Written by Interviewer

April 27, 2022 at 10:08

Posted in Scratchpad

I Can Relate …

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This is a quickie. I am reminded again why an interviewer should never insert themselves personally into an interview, either because you end up generating something unintentional or being unintentionally complicit in something.

It’s very easy to do. You want to be cordial, even accommodating to help the conversation move forward. So you commiserate, you affirm … and the moment you do, you potentially put your foot in a bear trap. That’s why, as I mentioned in this post from many years ago, questions focused on the interviewee and answers from only the interviewee are the safest route for the journalist. Even sharing a laugh can be fraught.

I’ve had dozens of political candidates tell me, over nearly a decade of talking with them, that I don’t judge them, that I make them feel comfortable, that I ask good questions. But none of that means I make a habit of saying things like, “I know how you feel” because even if I do, I keep it to myself because, one, it’s not about me and two, that is the first step into a minefield.

By leaving yourself out of most inclinations to identify with whatever the guest is talking about, you don’t find your feet tangled in the reeds at the bottom of whatever swamp later inconsistencies in their story trap you in. You don’t want to be, in any way responsible for or implicated in some dialogue related mess later because you went somewhere you had no business going, not matter how well intentioned.

Clear, clean questions keep separations between them and you sharp, and that’s safest for your both.

Written by Interviewer

April 22, 2022 at 05:47

Posted in Scratchpad

Stories vs Policies

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I am drawn to talk to politicians. In light of the events our country periodically plows through and is changed by, I’ve come to believe what I can do is use my experience to flesh out the thoughts and plans of those people who would lead us. In the course of that work, I hope I’ve revealed to some voters the fitness of some candidates over others, but in the end, that is their decision … not mine.

However, there is one place where, as I prepare those stories to be heard, I have to make choices. And that is in the edit. I package long form, audio conversations in 30-minute increments mostly because if a radio station is going to use a piece, it has to fit within a block big enough to be substantial but small enough that it doesn’t interrupt a local or network programming schedule. Thirty minutes seems to be that sweet spot.

But candidates can be long winded. That is in part because of them. These people are passionate, and I want to ask them a question that gives them free range to talk about the answer for as long as they want, in whatever way they choose. One answer can go minutes long. But part of it is because of me. I could stop them at a certain point to make sure all of their answers to all of my questions don’t go beyond 30 minutes. But then, I could miss something that is a definitive reveal; something not mentioned in a bio or a campaign webpage. So, I encourage them to be long winded knowing I’ll take the hit later, meaning I’ll be spending hours listening to every word, figuring out how to cut it all down to something cogent, cohesive and in context.

One of the biggest aids in doing that is listening to stories they tell and how they interweave with policies they’ll promote. This is a simple version of say vs do. Although stories (which can be metaphors for how something that happened to them will translate into a belief that will lead to an action) can be telling, in the end, what a listener wants to know is how will you fix my problem? They MAY be interested in how their problem relates to the story told. But one of the things I’ve noticed interviewing candidates is often, many words are used to say (or not say) simple, direct things.

So, I end up asking, “If I include all of the stories the candidate considers important, and all of the policies that are related to those stories, will that make the interview unusable to the radio station?” Often, the answer is yes. Then, none of the candidate’s thoughts can be heard and the public has less information. Then, it’s deciding which stories to keep that have the strongest connection to a thing the candidate will actually do, rather than a piece of fluff that surrounds an unclear policy or an indirect answer. Sometimes, if there’s time, all of their stories can stay. Sometimes, some of them. Sometimes, because of that long windedness and passion, there are no stories and only their policies remain.

I have been doing this since 2014. I encourage candidates to tell me if they feel they have been misrepresented. So far, candidates across Oregon’s wide political spectrum seem to feel the intent of their messages have remained intact. It is important to me to make sure they continue to feel that way and that voters have the clearest, most concise picture of who they are and how they will affect lives if they’re elected.

Written by Interviewer

April 17, 2022 at 01:27

Posted in Scratchpad