Posts Tagged ‘confidence’
People can be sweet. I say that because I can’t remember how many times, after an interview, somebody looks at me with all sincerity and innocence and asks how they did? Did their answers make sense? Did they sound like they knew what they were talking about. “You won’t make me sound stupid, will you?”
At these moments, it’s my job to reassure them. “No, of course you didn’t sound stupid.” “You’re here because you’re the expert.” “It’s not my job to make you sound bad.” It is my job, though, to honestly present them to the audience. To do otherwise would be doing a disservice to them and listeners.
I once interviewed a candidate for a state office in Oregon. This person was registered with the Secretary of State, along with a slate of qualified and assumedly, highly confident and competent competitors. But, this person was not confident. And as we talked, they showed their utter lack of knowledge on the most basic issues someone running for that office would need to at least be familiar with. At the end, they asked me how they did. I asked them how long they had been considering their run before they decided to do it. It was a decision they had made against the advice of family and friends. As for the reason why they sought this office, I didn’t get a clear answer either in the pre-interview, during the conversation or afterwards.
I aired the interview. Another candidate won the office. But still, I didn’t see it as my job to present them in any way other than how they presented themselves. And though I tried to be gentle in my review, the fact is, they didn’t bring the goods and they sat themselves down in front of my microphone.
Everytime, an interviewer has to be professional and most times, kind. But you can’t always protect people from themselves.
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,
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
I sometimes talk about the “dark art” aspects of journalism and interviewing. This one is firmly rooted in the “How To’s” of discrediting an interviewee and making yourself sound smarter or more of an authority than you are. Stump the Chump means asking questions, or pursuing lines of questioning that, on some occasions, are rhetorical and on other occasions, esoteric. But both are intended to throw the interviewee way off their game.
How? I have conducted interviews with people about to start a new job. Since these people have worked very hard for this job, a listener might assume that they must have done all of their due diligence to learn about every aspect of it. I mean, that is what the idea of “hitting the ground running” is all about. An employer or a constituency wants to be confident that the person they have just put in this important position knows as much about it as the person about to leave it so there can be as little disruption as possible.
Journalists and interviewers can exploit this assumption to the extreme however by asking the interviewee questions purposely engineered to be outside of their knowledge. For example, let’s say the interviewee will be part of a department that is responsible for an interactive system that updates the public on something or other. If there have been changes to that system, or if it has been down for maintenance, a Stump the Chump question might be, “So, what can you tell me about XYZ system, and why has it been down so long?” It’s possible that the interviewee will know about XYZ system, but it is much more likely that they don’t because they have been overly occupied in learning the broader aspects of the job; the direct responsibilities of their soon to be predecessor, the politics of the position, the specific day to day requirements, organizational structure and so forth.
But a question that seems to be germane to their duties that they have difficulty answering can make them sound unsure at best and incompetent at worst.
A good interviewer spends at least hours, and probably days plotting a course through the interviewee’s experience with a list of questions. With that kind of birds-eye view of the interviewee, a general knowledge of the job and an overall understanding of the culture as it relates to both, interviewers can cogently test an interviewee’s knowledge in a way the listener can relate to and evaluate.
But although journalists and interviewers are intelligent and savvy enough to discover and formulate legitimate questions that the interviewee considers expertly posed, they are not the experts they are interviewing. Journalist and interviewers with the intention to embarrass interviewees can find themselves on thin ice if they pursue this tact. And those experts can fight back against Stump the Chump questions.
The simplest way is to simply ask them to “explain” what they mean. Unless the interviewer has relatively deep knowledge of the inner workings of the issue, they may find themselves stuck and unable to further explain their question. A variation of this is if the interviewee reasks the interviewer’s question “for the purposes of clarity” in an equally complex way but from a different technical direction. Since the interviewer may have only investigated one aspect of the problem, an interviewee that forces them to repose the question from another direction can shut down that line of questioning.
Another way the interviewee can avoid being cornered is to say something along the lines of “I don’t have an answer for that right now, but I would be glad to get back to you or one of your staff with an answer/solution before the end of the day”. This is a good come back because it shows that although they don’t know, they promise to find out. This can give them credibility with listeners.
Most interviewers are professional, meaning, their intention is to not think for the listeners. That can mean not trying to funnel or filter audience thinking through their own by way of questions that emphasize one aspect of the interviewee or denigrating others aspects. A professional interviewer asks open, honest, straightforward questions with no subtext on the assumption that the audience is intelligent and can come to their own opinions about the interviewee, their experience and qualifications for the position. Stump the Chump questions are asked by amateurs who lack confidence or so-called professionals with an agenda.