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The art and science of the interview

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The Stare

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The Stare2

Guests that you are interviewing may not always like where your questions are going. Or they may not understand what you’re trying to get at. Or they may not feel any chemistry with you. And consequently, you may sometimes get ‘the stare”. What is the stare?

The stare is a look that lasts just a few short seconds but is full of judgmental, incredulous or dismissive intensity. It may be a wrinkling of the brow, a rolling or squinting of the eyes or it may be expressionless. But whether intentional or not, it is a sign that you as an interviewer need to check yourself to make sure you know what you’re saying and how you’re presenting yourself to the interviewee. I say intentional or not because sometimes, savvy interviewees may want to throw you off your game for any number of reasons, ranging from wanting to control the agenda through intimidation to deciding they want to sabotage the whole thing. But other times, it comes from an interviewee who expected more professionalism than they’re getting.

It’s not as direct a tactic as confronting the interviewer openly and directly with a hot microphone. What it is engineered to do is silently shake your confidence with shame.

To deal with it when it happens,

  1. First remember the reason for the interview; the guest agreed to let you talk to them about a particular subject. You assumed you had a good reason for inviting the interviewee and that their story would be interesting or important to your audience. So you both want to be there.
  2. Next, have confidence in the research you did in preparation for the interview. Interviewees can be intimidated or impressed by you recalling pieces of their life they may have forgotten or didn’t realize were public. You never know which ahead of time.  BTW, that research should also include a look at the interviewee in previous conversations (if possible) so you can know something about their personality and whether it’s friendly or combative.
  3. Next, have confidence in the path you are plotting through their life as it relates to whatever the subject is. That means, make sure your questions follow some kind of logic/chronology that makes it relatively easy for the interviewee to see they make sense. And ask them those questions with confidence.
  4. Finally, respond rather than react when an interviewee gives an answer before or after the stare that seems judgmental, incredulous or dismissive. Respond means wait for the interviewee to finish, take a moment if you need it to compose a follow up question based either on your initial question, or on their response, and ask it directly with no qualifiers. (A qualifier is something you may say before or after a question or a statement that softens it).

Ideally, an interview is a conversation between equals, meaning the interviewee is talking with the interviewer who represents a listening or viewing or reading audience. Since no guest is greater than the people in the audience who acknowledge and empower them, they are obliged to treat the interviewer with respect.  When interviewees don’t, they are disrespecting the audience and their proxy, the interviewer.

But an audience will rally behind an interviewer and an interviewee will engage with that interviewer only if the interviewer is holding up his or her end of the bargain. If they’ve done a sloppy prep job or don’t engage the interviewee with confidence, then they may deserve the stare.

Written by Interviewer

March 17, 2014 at 13:05

A Mighty Wind

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Image

I’m doing a lot of editing right now.  And when I edit, I hear things I want to talk about as part of the interviewing process.  One of those things is the message.  The interviewer is neither the messenger or the message.  He or she is the conduit only.  But the interviewer is referee, governor, filter, interpreter.  In other words, the interviewer has the responsibility to help the listener not waste their time by making what they hear crystal clear.

This can be a problem when you have a long-winded interviewee.  I’ve talked before about interviewees who may be purposely trying to obfuscate an issue by taking around it or intimidate the interviewer.  But what I’m talking about here is a guest who has a lot of very relevant things to say, but the problem is they have way too many of them.

Specifically, you ask a guest a question.  The guest begins to answer the question.  Then, for perhaps context, the guest decides to tell a personal anecdote.  That personal anecdote might then lead off on a tangent.  Sometimes, if they get too far afield, you have to interrupt to pose the question to them again.  If you’re lucky, the guest returns to the original question and reiterates the question themselves with an answer.  But now, you have a long winded response that, although entertaining and relevant, is a lot more than you have time for, let alone what the listener has patience for.

When editing something like this, it’s very important to get to the point while not taking too many liberties with what they’re saying so that the chain of understanding is not broken.  It’s easy to cut out a block of what might seem like a meaningless story, only to realize you need a connector that the guest used a couple minutes back to have any hope of making a seamless edit that makes sense.  For instance, a guest might say, “Well, to answer you question about gun reform … and then tell a long story about going shooting with her uncle, and then move onto an experience of being stopped by a cop because they saw a gun under their jacket … and then, finally summing up the need for looser gun laws by saying something like … “so, I think people should have the right to carry a gun if they’re properly permitted and have never been convicted of a crime and have no mental illness.”

Uh oh.  First of all, the answer is too short now.  Some questions deserve answers with a little meat. And in the middle of the story, they may have mentioned permitting and not having a record and never having gone to anyone for counseling, but you didn’t notice.  So now, they are at the end of the story and they mention three concepts the listener hasn’t heard except in the middle of all of that other stuff.  So you’ve got to go back into those pieces of the story you just deleted and find those mentions so you can rebuild a more complete and meaningful thought, just with a lot fewer words.

You can’t leave in the whole story because you don’t have the time.  But you can’t connect the beginning to the end without some of the stuff in the middle that ties the two ends together.

Editing is like learning a script for a play.  You have to learn your lines and everybody else’s.  Once you do, you know where things go and how they make sense.  Only then, can you know how to cut them up into smaller but better pieces.

Written by Interviewer

April 11, 2014 at 06:12

Time to make the Donuts

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Donuts

The only thing I like better than writing is building databases.  You would think those would be reversed considering writing is thought to be more of an artistic endeavor.  Creating spreadsheets, by contrast, is head down, butt in the seat, grunt work though, as someone who writes, I know writing can be its own kind of torture.

But there is something about the researching; the lining things up, the sorting, the cross-tabulating that I find fascinating such that the days or weeks or months it takes me to compile that data is as much the reward as the surprises the data reveal.  You would think filling rows and columns would be laborious and tedious and mind numbing.

Each piece of data helps build a picture that I anticipate like a kid’s first time visit to Disneyland.  I’ve always been like this.  I know I have to do this digging and shoveling, sifting and stacking.  But I also know that when I hit “Tabulate”, pictures in each cell start to move like pages in a flipbook and that is thrilling to me.

As I work on this book, I am digging as deeply as I have ever dug and I know what I’ve done so far hasn’t gone nearly deep enough.  I can be OCD like that.  But when the researcher is satisfied that he has found every article, report, study, white paper, message board or blogpost, he will hand it all off the the writer who trusts every ladder rung has been stress tested.

The writer will take that roiling vat of information and move to Step 2 of the process; corroboration; turning facts and assumptions into thoughtful and intelligent questions that people in the know can confirm (or refute).  Questions that I hope show the people I’m asking that I have done my homework.  Because nothing annoys professionals more than amateurs who waste their time.  These are busy people and my subject – money and how public radio stations get it – is at the heart of what each of them do everyday.  The writer will then take everything and exhaust pens, pencils and toner cartridges on reams and reams of paper.

My editor will first pat me on the head and tell me it’s clear that I’ve been thinking hard about this, but then fill the other side of the page with notes.  My graphic artist friend will tell me my ideas for artwork are good places to start. My programming friend will make me stare at numbers I’ve already stared at for months and make me make them make more sense.

And I will (for the most part) listen to these people because they are smart.

I hope the interviews I get, supported by the rows and columns I’m filling now, help me create something new and helpful to everyone who cares about public radio, listens to public radio and wants it to be the best it can be.

Time to make the donuts.

The Batphone is Red

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PledgeTheBook

That’s the first thought that hit my brain when I saw the preliminary artwork for my book from the terrific graphic artist who created it. Ren (short for Karen) and I worked on the front and back cover for no more than a week after the phone cover art was finished. But we haggled for months over that cover art, which we both knew would have to be definitive and signature.

I wanted something boring. I just didn’t know it was boring. I knew I wanted a phone on the cover, since what better exemplifies a public radio pledge drive than a phone? But I wanted a generic, black, 1950ish version. And I wanted it on a white cover because I thought it would draw the viewers eye..

Ren liked the basic idea. “I can work with that”, she told me. But it was by no means a finished idea. For weeks, we went back and forth about design. She developed a version of the phone that was more stylized and interesting than what I was thinking. Big body, big dial, big handset. You hear pledge drive phones during pitch breaks because the ring is supposed to conjure up in your mind the icon of telephone – a thing that equals the noise it makes and the attention it garners. Think Peter Sellers as the US President in “Dr Strangelove” pleading with his Russian counterpart on a big clunky phone that the bomb heading his way isn’t intentional. It wouldn’t do to have Androids vibrating on tabletops as the sound that you’re supposed to associate with the dynamism of giving.

Likewise, Ren felt the image needed to draw on that association to power and formality but at the same time, not be that. So when she completed my black phone on a white cover, I was thrilled. She, not so much. “White covers are death”, she said. “But I love it” I whined, even as I felt I had already lost the argument.

I mumbled something about white space, but Ren pressed on. “I’m sending you a variation I’ve been playing with”, she said. “Keep an open mind”. Her variation was a halting fire engine red phone on a black background. I stared at it, not wanting to be that guy who couldn’t swallow ideas not his own. “Waddya think?”

I deferred. It was attention getting. Still, I clung to my boring black and white version. “Well, since we’re experimenting, can you give me some color combinations for the phone and the covers?” She did, handily, as if to say, “You know this design is the best one. Just admit it.”

And, she was right. The more I looked at it, the more it grabbed my attention. It made me think of urgency. It made me think of the pressure to reach a goal by a deadline. It made me think of disappointment and defeat if the goal is missed and the crime of the consequences that could follow. And it made me think of valiant efforts to not let that happen by public radio crusaders.

Caped crusaders.

P.S.  To learn more about the coming book, visit @pledgethebook & http://www.pledgethebook.com. To see more work from Karen Green, visit https://rengreen.wordpress.com/ and linkedin page? https://www.linkedin.com/in/karen-green-102579b9

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May 24, 2016 at 10:16

Extruded Answer

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toothpaste

Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace was talking to Jeff Selingo, author of the book, “There is Life after College“.  He responded to a comment Mr. Selingo made about how, instead of recruiting seniors, businesses are now looking at sophmores so they can “try them out before they buy them.”

“That’s a little harsh”, Mr. Ryssdal responded.  And then, three seconds of silence which, in radio, is a least one and a half forevers.

You could feel Mr. Selingo being pulled through the tiny hole Mr. Ryssdal had formed around his incredulity over how colleges are being ruthlessly business-like.  Eventually, almost reluctantly it seemed, he replied.  This led me to two observations;

1.  I thought Marketplace was a business program that stared clear and cold eyed at business realities.  This surprises you, really?

2.  Again, the crushing weight of radio silence bent another human to its will.

I’ve talked about the host pause before, so no need to dwell on it here except to say, man, does it work.

 

 

Written by Interviewer

April 20, 2016 at 05:48

Is There a Sign on My Back?

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jennifer lawrence2

It’s not often that somebody can make Jon Stewart speechless. He and his “Daily Show” have a reputation of enrapturing guests and audiences with Sam Kennison like screams, Alvin the Chipmunk like squeals, Vincent Price like whispers and Buckwheat like wide-eyed stares. He uses them in series and parallel, like rotating shield frequencies of the Enterprise-D fending off the Borg. He is, for all practical purposes, invincible …

… except on November 21, 2013. That was when he had Jennifer Lawrence as a guest. Jennifer Lawrence of “The Hunger Games” and “Catching Fire” fame. And she apparently brought some of her own A-game as a fem gladiator to Comedy Central that day.

She warned him. At the outset, she said she was tired and was glad that her interview with him was the last one before 10 days of peace and quiet. And he put his own foot in his f*cking mouth by calling her media tour a “crapfest” which was apparently all she needed to start taking his interviewing style apart like a medical examiner at an autopsy. She called him out vis-a-vie his staff, remarking that she was warned that, “He’s not really going to know a lot about a movie or about you.” In fact, she seemed astounded that they seemed particularly proud of that.

She asked about a pre-interview and could not believe that nobody prepared bullet points for him about her film. The pre-interview is what gives the interviewer the questions to ask in the main interview. David Letterman had a pre-interview with Lindsey Lohan but that didn’t stop him from essentially ignoring it – https://dmassociates.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/we-didnt-talk-about-this-in-the-pre-interview/.

And, Ms. Lawrence noted that several of his staff offered her tequila and other hard liquour that they apparently had stashed under their desks, which along with everything else, led her to ask, “What kind of-what’s going on here?”

This wisp of a woman at barely 23, slammed Mr. Stewart in front of God and everybody. After a few years of watching, I have never seen him unintentionally speechless. But it was an interview that clearly didn’t get him what his face-in-face, yell to establish rapport, rapid fire witticisms usually produce, which is the rapt attention of the interviewee and roaring call and response with the audience.

When it was over, he did his usual lean in, as if to let the wide-shot say to the guest and the audience, “We’re cool, right?” But Ms. Lawrence so efficiently kicked his ass, I could imagine he was whispering and squeaking in bug-eyed freeze face, “Forgive me, please. Please?”

Every interviewer has his or her own style. And for 99% of people they talk with, it probably works just fine. But there is always somebody for whom a conversation with them is like fingernails on a blackboard. There is always somebody who sees the master as a dolt.

Nobody is better than Jon Stewart. We want him to chop down those twisted f*cking trees that seem to be everywhere. We want him to eviscerate the snorters, the ego problems, the sociopaths. But every now and then, after so many wins, even Superman has to get punked. And after, OK, … we love him again.

Written by Interviewer

November 25, 2013 at 11:52