Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Answer

Redundant?

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Redundant

Journalism has competing tenants.  One says, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them and tell them what you told them”.  The point of doing that, of repeating key aspects of a story throughout the story, is to reinforce the message since a long story can give people so much information they can get lost in it.

But the other one is that a lot of journalism tends to speak to people at about a 7th grade level.  There, the point is keeping things simple helps people follow the message.

Where these collide is the redundant review.  I often hear an interviewer ask a guest a question, the guest gives a perfectly cogent answer, and the interviewer, for some reason, restates that answer, and maybe even puts a slightly different spin on it than the guest intends.

I wonder why this happens.  Maybe the interviewer is trying to stay loyal to tenant number one.  Or maybe, they’re trying to stay true to tenant number two.  Sometimes, I wonder if there is a number three, namely, the interviewer is working the answer out in their own mind to make sure they understand what the guest is actually saying.

I have a third tenant that makes this tendency by some interviewers understandable.  The interviewer should be a surrogate for the listener.  And if there is ever  any question in the interviewer’s mind that a listener might not understand what a guest is saying, the interviewer should speak up.  My year of interviews with Oregon political office seekers proved this to be necessary over and over.

I’ve talked about interviewers adding spin, or restating or talking down to their audience.  Each of those is definitely annoying.  But not everybody who listens has the same capacity to understand and for that reason, journalism has to give those listeners the benefit of the doubt.  For those with capacity plus, they should see that as a win-win for us all.

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February 24, 2015 at 02:02

Fake

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Fake

Sometimes, you hear it in the voice of the interviewer.  Fake laughing, fake surprise, fake incredulity, fake interest, fake sincerity.  And you know it’s fake because it sounds like stink smells and there’s never any question about stink.

You rarely hear fake in the voice of the interviewee, since it’s the interviewer’s job, in part, to keep the interviewee off balance and thus, by keeping them off balance, that can help keep them honest.  Usually, when an interviewee is answering a question, they are speaking off the cuff about something they should know well and that tends to lead to honesty.  That, along with the fact that a good interviewer has probably fact checked the hell out of them before they got there and will challenge them on untruths.

But also, with interviewees, you may hear a lie, but not them being fake, since interviewees who are not being truthful probably believe the untruths they’re telling more than they realize.

Interviewers though, silver tongued devils that they are, use a number of verbal gadgets to move the conversation along.  I’ve talked about some of them in this blog.  I’m sure a lot of people consider a forced laugh or a breathy “really!” pretty harmless if it breaks down social barriers.  But when I hear that too often from someone who wears the mantel of journalistic credibility when in fact, they are essentially sleepwalking through the conversation, I don’t see how they can expect openness or revelation from the interviewee or respect from the audience.

At the same time, questions can’t sound like they’re being asked by IBM’s Watson.  There should be energy and enthusiasm in the questions because there is energy and enthusiasm in the questioner.

It’s a hard line to walk, especially since it has been proven that occasionally mimicking a guest’s facial expression, tone of voice or body language makes them feel more comfortable and thus, more willing open up.  Its a truth about human nature we have to first learn, then have to learn to not overuse to the point of creepy or insincere.

A lot of the techniques interviewers use are legitimate and sometimes, necessary.  But fake shouldn’t be one of them.

When I hear fake, I think, “How do you still have a job?”

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February 21, 2015 at 06:28

The Money is the Message?

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Mark Rubio

One of the reasons why people have a standing distaste for politicians is because of how they sometimes don’t clearly answer questions.  Case in point, Mark Rubio has written a book in which he talks about what America needs to do to help Americans recapture the American Dream.  The law says he, as a sitting Senator, can’t also run for the presidency.  So, he has to make a choice as to when he’ll choose which office he’ll officially seek.

Charlie Rose and Nora O’Donnell of CBS This Morning both asked Mr. Rubio when he’ll announce.  And he circled back to his book and how he spells his choice out there.  The anchors followed up with a simple question, namely, (paraphrasing) can’t you just say?  Again, he goes back to the book.  This is one of those times for reporters and the audience when you wonder what is more important to a politician; communicating a message important to their constituency or making money for themselves?  To be fair, Hilary Clinton has done this a number of times around her own book in interviews.

The established politician strategy when asked a question that is too direct is to continue talking in hopes that the listener or viewer will forget the question that was asked and instead, focus on their next golden utterance.  Time can limit how much time reporters, commentators, correspondents and anchors have to follow up on such dreck, but they need to as often as they can so the public knows the single-minded message isn’t floating free.

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January 13, 2015 at 00:00

It’s Over

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Voting Booth

For 11 months, I’ve been deep in Oregon politics; calling candidates, setting up interviews with candidates, interviewing candidates, editing the interviews with candidates, posting those interviews – repeat.  I ended this project with pretty much the intention I started with.  I was sick of people complaining about the poor quality of political candidates and I wanted to see where the problem really lay.  Was it with the candidates themselves, or was it with the people who listened to them, believed them and elected them?

I interviewed almost 70 of about 300 candidates.  Some dropped out.  Many didn’t return calls.  A few agreed to be interviewed and then apparently changed their minds.  No matter.  What matters is I’ve talked with a respectable number of executive, legislative and judicial office seekers since December 2013. I’ve blogged a lot about them.  And I’ve come away with some lessons.

1.  We should be grateful and proud that our elections are decided peacefully by the ballot rather than the bullet.
2.  We should be ashamed that our elections can be essentially paid for through deceptive ads by multinational corporations that keep hammering on the public’s perceptions until they cave.  To coin a friend from Russia, “The difference between Russia and the US is that at least we know we live under a tyranny.”
3.  We should be grateful that our system allows anyone to run for office.  The diversity of the electorate is reflected in the diversity of the candidates and that’s a good thing.
4.  We should be fearful that our system allows anyone to run for office.  I talked with several people who couldn’t put a sentence together or say what they were proposing but were quick to personally berate the opposition.
5.  Politicians know this can be a game.
6.  The voters often neither know it can be a game nor know the rules of the game.
7.  Neophytes tend to talk about what they will do if they get into office to change things and how they will work with those on the other side of the aisle to fulfill those changes.
8.  Incumbents by contrast spend their time pushing the opposition away with promises of what they’ve accomplished and candy dangling of what they’ve yet to do.
9.  Many of them were sincerely grateful to be given a chance to truly be heard.
10.  Everybody intensely believes they and their tribe have the answer.
11.  Everybody intensely believes in the system.
12.  I do too.

I’ve come to believe in it because, as President Obama clearly articulated, to get change you have to hold your politician responsible.  That means you have to hound the hell out of them because that is exactly why they are there; to be your advocate.  The problem though is that everybody who wants something from that politician thinks the same thing.  So it really does come down to who has the loudest voice.  And many people think that since money = speech, mo’ money means a really big mouth.  But I’ve found that’s not always true.

I’ve found that a tiny but consistent noise, like this one, can be pretty effective in getting a politician’s attention.  That’s how politics works.  That’s the only way it can work.  Point 12 is only true if an annoyingly persistent constituent can countervail points 2, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 10 by always being somewhere in the vicinity of a politician’s ear.

No, it’s not Mr. Smith goes to Washington.  But it does keep the playing field surprisingly level.  Because although money is a big motivator for a politician to be a shill for a moneyed interest, a persistent, watchful, educated minority can make it very, very hard for them to enjoy spending it.  So if, in the end, a politician ends up doing the right thing either because they truly are good people or because they don’t want to be pegged as bad people, what’s the difference? I really don’t care.

Tonight, I was fortunate to cap a year’s worth of reporting by being one of three hosts during three hours of live election coverage.  And I’ve realized that I don’t care much about the spin, or the agenda pushing, or the mind games.  I’ve learned how to deal with that stuff.

But, to circle back to what started this post, what did I discover?  Was the problem with politics with the candidates themselves, or was it with the people who listened to them, believed them and elected them?  Was it us?

To both questions, I can only answer … yes.

I will be paying much close attention to politics from here on out.

Written by Interviewer

November 5, 2014 at 14:22

The Comma, the Period, the Horror

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Punctuation

Post means post-production, or the phase of an interview when its time to fix any problems that may have come up during the interview and turn the conversation into something concise and coherent.  Many times, if you’re lucky, this isn’t necessary.  Most interviewees stay on point and can compartmentalize thoughts within their answers, so their argument is both logical and chronological.  This means the discussion tracks an order of importance path; from introducing the listener to the interviewee, to the meat of the discussion, to a more light-hearted conclusion.  It’s a standard interview arc and one listeners have come to expect, mostly because it works.

But when an interviewee rarely uses punctuation, editing the conversation into a listenable final product can be a nightmare.  There are people who can talk for long minutes at a time and never take a breath.  Sometimes, talking without a break is less malicious than psychological.  Some people are never asked to give their opinion or are never allowed to finish once they start.  So they are delighted to talk and because it may be rare to have someone actually listening, they may not know the cues of polite society that should tell them it’s time to pause and allow dialogue.

I suspect though that some interviewees have learned to do this purposely and as a strategy (1) to prevent the interviewer from immediately challenging the interviewee’s suppositions, (2) in an attempt to shift power in the conversation to the interviewee, or (3) to purposely make editing difficult.

When an interviewee talks without letting the interviewer ask follow up questions, they are trying to push an agenda.  They are forcing out talking points that represent an ideology which has no tolerance for examination.  Or they are trying to plant something in the listener’s mind with such force that they hope an interviewer’s questions won’t uproot it.  That’s hard to deal with but not impossible.  The best way, if you’re not up against the clock, is to simply say you have X number of questions and you want to get them all asked before you finish.  You’ve put the interviewee on notice that no matter how long they talk, they know every question is going to get asked no matter how long they try to delay you asking them.  If you are up against the clock, you either take control of the interview or end it.

And this can lead to shifting power which can be a tougher problem, because then, it’s not about the content of the conversation as much as it’s about the dynamic between the interviewer and the interviewee.  But an aggressive interviewee can be dealt with in a couple ways.  An interviewer can butt heads with them once as a way to show them they are not going to dominate the conversation but then choose not to escalate confrontation beyond that.  If the interviewee chooses to escalate, the interviewer lets them while remaining calm, knowing it is they who will come off looking like an ass.  Otherwise, an interviewer may try to reign in a confrontational interviewee with a long pause after a tirade, or they may come back with a dispassionately asked follow up question devoid of any emotional energy.  Using the interviewee’s name is also another method of bringing the discussion back to a balanced interaction.  The key is for the interviewer to not let themselves be drawn into the interviewee’s own unique form of crazy.

But no matter why run-on answers happen, they can cause real technical problems.  Namely, someone who isn’t using punctuation doesn’t have natural breaks in their speech, or if they do, they may not always line up with logical breaks.  Natural breaks are places where people take a breath or where their inflection falls such that editing that point to another point where it later rises makes for an almost unnoticeable transition.  Logical breaks are where someone carries a complete thought to its conclusion. The thing is they don’t always happen at the same time and are a lot less likely to happen without punctuation.

Ideally, editing is where a natural break coincides with a logical break.  But now imagine two lanes of traffic, both moving in the same direction but at different speeds.  Trying to shoot an arrow across both lanes without hitting something is almost impossible and that’s what editing an interview with someone speaking in run-on sentences is like.  It can make for a jerky sounding interview and no producer or audience wants to listen to that.  From an aesthetic point of view, unfortunately, smooth sounding bullshit sounds a lot better than choppy sounding truth.

But no self respecting editor will give a message they believe is being manipulated a pass.  They will use every tool in the effects tab to smooth, to separate, to equalize and to make each word of a circular breather stand on its own, not lean on those around it like a phalanx of bullies trying to bums rush the listener.

The Answer you Want versus The Answer you Get

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its-not-warming-its-dying-campaign-to-tackle-climate-change-1-640x640-590x590

Jian Ghomeshi recently interviewed Milton Glaser, an ad man who has taken on the task of bringing the warming of the earth into public consciousness with a jarring image that implies the earth is dying.  It shows the green of the earth being overtaken by black.  During the course of the interview, Ghomeshi asks Glaser why he decided to take on this challenge.

As a listener and an interviewer, I hear this question and I automatically assume both a reason for the question and anticipate an answer.  The reason, namely, since Mr. Glaser is 85, might Ghomeshi be asking him if he is taking on the cause because he is of advanced years and wants to do something both big, and something that deeply affects his and all of our lives in an intimate way before the end of his own life?

And the answer I assume is, yes, that is true because … and then Mr. Glaser would talk about the changes he’s seen, or how he himself was never sold on the idea of an earth that’s getting hotter but as he’s grown older, he gradually become aware of a truth he can’t ignore.  Or maybe he’d say something like he’s at an age where he doesn’t really care about how people in general or people in advertising in particular might react to his methods.

Perhaps I wrongly assume the question and the answer, but I still assume them.

And then, he says something completely different.  He says, “Yikes” in a way that implies he hadn’t really thought about why he decided to take on this work.  And as both a listener and an interviewer, I’m disappointed and I think, “How could you not think about what drove you do this?”  Worse, I think “How could you not answer the way I though you would?”

That’s pretty terrible, I know.

The thing about interviews and interviewing is they don’t always line up.  You hear a set of questions that seems to point to an answer like bowling pins to a strike.  But then, you get something completely different and you’re thrown.

But then again, maybe not.  Maybe you are living in the moment and appreciate the answer because you weren’t thinking you were smarter that the person actually answering the question.  Or maybe you had the thought but you pushed it out of your mind as ridiculously pretentious.

When you talk to a lot of people, you hear a lot of answers.  And when you’re coming up with questions, sometimes, you have a bias.  There is a certain thing you want to hear and when you don’t hear it, as an interviewer, sometimes you ask the same question again because you’re thinking, “OK, I’m going to lay this out for you and please say what I’m expecting.”  When it doesn’t happen, as an interviewer it can be frustrating because you might think the answer in your head is better than the answer in your guest’s head.

But it’s not true.  It never is.  And it never will be.

Bad listener/interviewer.  Bad.

When Will They Ever Learn?

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Image

Yesterday morning, Jeremy Hobson of the NPR Program Here and Now was interviewing Cardiff Garcia of the Financial Times.  The conversation was about drug company Pfizer trying to again acquire drug company AstraZeneca.

At the end of the interview, no doubt because Mr. Hobson was running out of time, he asked Mr. Garcia for a one word answer as to whether recent mergers in the drug industry represented a healthy or unhealthy environment for the companies.

Mr. Garcia gave Mr. Hobson exactly 78 words.

By telling an interviewee to answer a question in a single word, phrase or sentence, professional interviewers like to think they have total control over interviews and interviewees.  But professional interviewees know how to play this game too.  And often, they will talk just as long as they want until they themselves hear the cue music loud in their headphones, indicating that the host is experiencing a panic attack, trying to end the interview on time.

This tactic represents a kind of insincerity in the interviewing profession.  Maybe interviewers assume they won’t get a one word answer.  Maybe it’s a”wink wink, nod nod” kind of thing between the two.  When I say one word, it means you need to wrap it up.  We all know issues can be complicated and sometimes to protect their own credibility, a guest can’t or won’t try to boil down a request to answer an impossibly complex question into a one word answer.

But sometimes, when interviewers say, “one word”, interviewees do respond with “one word”.  So, there is a consistency problem that might not completely set with some listeners.  Interviewers probably sense somewhere that it is, to some extent, unfair to expect an nterviewee to boil something down to a single word.  If an interviewee can do it, then they should.  If an interviewer is asking them for a one word answer, it’s because they are out of time but want to put a bow on the point of the conversation.  Or maybe it’s because they know the interviewee can be long winded and they don’t want to find themselves out of time.  Besides, it certainly makes it more likely that an interviewee will be invited on other programs if they can show that they can summarize in a crunch.

But the interviewer can’t cram every second of the interview with questions and then leave the interviewee no time to answer the final question “lightning round” style.

It reminds me of a sign I used to see inside a lot of office cubes; “A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part”.  That applies to interviewing too. Each side should to be aware of and sensitive to the needs and limitations of the other.

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April 30, 2014 at 23:42

Do The Math

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Image

The responsibility of a listener is to listen to the question the interviewer asks and listen to the answer the interviewee answers and decide if the answer answered the question.  Sometimes, you have to ignore the softness or confidence or the tone of an interviewee’s voice you like.  Those things might just be sizzle.  And politicians, like advertisers know that when selling steaks, sell the sizzle.  But when choosing someone to represent you in government, remember that the sizzle won’t feed you and if the meat is rotten, you still go hungry.

Think of what you hear from a politician like an addition problem.  On one side are some numbers:

1+2

And on the other side is a number:

3

And in between them is something that promises they’re the same:

=

When a politician is asked a question, listen to the answer to see if the answer actually addresses the question.  Do the question and the answer have equal weight, equal validity.  Do they both point in the same direction which should be toward understanding the essence of the answer as it strictly relates to the essence of the question?  Does the answer fill holes the question opens up in a subject?  Check what you hear, since sometimes, when politicians answer a question, you get this:

1+2=3333333333333333333333333333333 (way too much)

Or, this:

1+2=2.99 (not quite enough)

Or this:

1+2=Tallahassee, FL (completely unrelated)

Or this:

1+2=49 (just plain wrong)

Whenever you hear this:

1+2=3

Then, you know you’ve heard a real answer and this person can probably be trusted to be truthful.  Agreement with them is less important than truthfulness since truthfulness tends to lead to respect.  And respect, even between people at different ends of the political spectrum who don’t agree, is still the holy grail of how politics should ideally work.

I’ve talked before about how some interviewees either intentionally or unintentionally don’t answer questions.  Always, it’s the job of the interviewer to detect those inconsistencies and flush them out.  And sometimes, the interviewee is trying to answer a poorly posed question.  That’s the interviewer’s fault, not theirs.  But either way dear listener, in the end, know that it’s your responsibility to do the math.

Written by Interviewer

April 15, 2014 at 02:22

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.

Written by Interviewer

March 4, 2014 at 12:17