Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘David Letterman

Annoying Interviewer Traits

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interviewer

I’ve been wanting to write about this for awhile because I listen to a lot of interviews and the thing about becoming familiar with a particular interviewer is that you become familiar with how they structure their conversations with their guests. You learn how they talk, their tics and mannerisms, the way they pose their questions.  And after awhile, you realize it gives credence to that old saw, “Familiarity breeds Contempt”.

And because I do a lot of interviews, I listen to a lot of interviewers.  It’s sort of a requirement of the guild of interviewers to keep up on the styles and techniques of others.  In particular, I listen to a lot of Charlie Rose, Terry Gross, Jian Ghomeshi, Bob Garfield, Ira Glass, Michelle Martin, Dick Gordon, Melissa Block, Gwen Iffil, Bob Edwards, Jonathan Goldstein, Tavis Smiley, John Stewart, Brooke Gladstone, David Letterman.  And I listen to a lot of regional and local interviewers too.  But one interviewer in particular has some really annoying traits that I am having trouble dealing with.

This person says “um” or “you know” almost constantly.  He (and it is a he) asks the first part of his questions and then has this annoying way of slipping in an “I mean …” as a way of trying to rephrase the same question without making it sound unbearably long and drawn out.  But when he does ask questions, sometimes they’re long and drawn out anyway.  I sometimes hear him suck in his breath in preparation of his next question and I wonder if he is truly listening to the guest or just biding his time until he can line through the next question on his list.  And finally, he has this tendency to uptalk which is a kind of grating in a universe all its own.

I listen to this guy on a regular basis and I am full of respect and criticism.  I of course admire all he had done to find his guests, research them, schedule them, visit them, interview them, edit them and present them.  His guests seem happy.  His audience seems appreciative.  But I hear these traits of his and I just want to pull my hair out.

I know he is getting better, slowly.  I can hear him trying to pace himself so he doesn’t slur words.  He doesn’t seem to use “um” so much.  He holds his breath for a beat after the guest stops talks so he doesn’t sound like he’s rushing through his questions.

Little by little, he’s improving.  I’m guessing knows he’s got a lot of work to do to be anywhere near as good as any of the people I mentioned above.  But my standards as a listener are high.  The pros have set the bar and this guy, although I like him, doesn’t get a pass for his mistakes.  At best, he gets my patience while I look over his shoulder, watching and waiting for him to improve; to be as good as he wants to be.

I have faith in him, though.  He’ll get there.

“We didn’t talk about this in the pre-interview.”

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Lindsey Lohan

Interviewing, which is really just conversation, is never far from any of our lives.  “Conversing” is what we all do with each other.  It, along with body language and facial expressions, is how we decide each other to be safe or not, trustworthy or not, credible or not.

That’s why the conversation between Dave Letterman and Lindsey Lohan was such a wonderful lesson for us all.  Lots has been written about Ms. Lohan’s career.  Yes, she is young and talented.  And much has been written about her public displays.  Yes, courts have determined she needs supervision.  But neither of those was really what their conversation last night was about.

An excellent conversation is about what I call the reveal.  To cause a reveal, an interviewer has to be both skillful, like a surgeon with a scalpel, and a pummeler, like a bruiser in the ring.  Dave Letterman is a jester, but that’s not all he is.  You don’t have a late night TV interview show for more than 30 years by just being a clown.  In fact, savvy viewers know by now that the clown cleverly disguises the commando.  And when someone with the conversational skill set of David Letterman starts talking with someone who is both brilliant and apparently troubled, it’s a black ops mission under studio lights.

Essentially, he asked simple questions of Ms. Lohan; How many times have you been in rehab?  How will this time be different?  What are they rehabbing?  And on one hand, you could see she felt betrayed, at one point saying “We didn’t talk about this in the pre-interview”, as if to say, “You ambushed me.”

But on the other hand, think about it.  If you’re the handlers of Lindsey Lohan, you know very well what David Letterman is about and is capable of.  And if you’ve been dividing your time between keeping her working and keeping her out of the tabloid press, you might be looking for new ways to get her to change her behavior.

Who better to do that than Uncle Dave?  And when beautiful, big eyed Lindsey was faced with his brutal soft spoken-ness and a silent studio audience, you could see the ramifications of his questions and her answers ricocheting around in her mind like ball bearings from a Claymore Mine.  She cried.

“Now”, said Letterman, satisfied that he had cracked open her armor with his first wave of questions, asked more probing, more direct and personal questions.  “Do YOU have addiction problems?”  “Is it alcohol?”  “Do YOU drink too much?”

The job of the interviewer is to get in and get out.  David Letterman asked his questions and tied them up with a bow at the end by praising Lindsey Lohan for having the credibility to come before him.  See, everybody knew what could’ve happened, what was likely to happen, and it did.  It was no surprise to Letterman, and probably deep down, no surprise to Ms. Lohan.  But it probably was to the audience.  Her admission was a reveal to them.

But it was something for her too.  Lindsey Lohan has been on the Letterman Show five times in her career, and she’ll probably be on again.  Afterwards, she tweeted how much she enjoyed it.  Besides, look at their body language; they are mirroring each other and leaning toward each other. There seems to be mutual affection there. What Letterman has done, just like Oprah and Barbara Walters were also excellent at doing, was give somebody an opportunity to make penance.  When you think about it, it’s really a labor of love.  Interview and intervention share a common root.