Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Embarassment

When a Laugh is not a Laugh

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This is a quickie.

I’ve talked before about how an interviewer has to be careful sometimes in sharing a laugh with an interviewee.  Laughing can make people seem connected to an idea more so than many other ways people interact.  Sometimes, an interviewer can’t afford to have an audience think they have a particular bent.

But this is about the interviewee’s laugh and not in a good way.  Of course laughter can be natural, fun, disarming.  It is one of the primary ways we connect.  But sometimes, a laugh is an anthropological proxy for something very different.  In some cases, a laugh says that the interviewee is nervous and they are trying to draw the interviewer into the interviewee’s artificial mood so that they can feel more in control of the situation.

Sometimes, a laugh is intended to dismiss, as when an interviewer asks a question and before the question is out, the interviewee is laughing in a way that clearly says, “That’s a ridiculous question”, followed up by something that isn’t a direct affront but sounds passive aggressive or patronizing.

And sometimes, the laugh is a disguise for aggression.  We’ve all seen it.  The conversation that is held behind gritted teeth because to scowl or grimace or bear teeth without the upturned corners of the mouth might jeopardize what the laugher is trying to achieve.  It might be working their way out of an uncomfortable situtation for which they have much embarassment and no appreciation.  Or it could be dealing with someone they dislike or fear but dare not be obvious about it.  Or it could be interacting with someone for whom they have no respect.

There are a lot of interpersonal dynamics in play during an interview.  The interviewer’s job is to keep his in check and not be drawn in by any play on the his ego by the interviewee’s ego.  This includes the seemingly harmless but potentially crippling use of laughter.  I’ve said it before, but it’s important for the interviewer to be nothing but a mirror to the interviewee.  In that way, they lose any ability to manipulate and are left to just answer the question.

Written by Interviewer

April 28, 2014 at 14:23

I Don’t Have to Take This.

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Oregon’s governor, John Kitzhaber, walked out of an interview with KATU reporter Kelly Lane in early January after four minutes and two questions.  Staff cut the interview short because they said the governor needed to stay on schedule.  But coincidentally, the interview ended immediately after Ms. Lane asked Mr. Kitzhaber about the failed Cover Oregon website. The governor’s office has taken an intense amount of what some would call well deserved heat for a breakdown in the site at practically every level of its development and implementation.

There are many reasons why a prior appointment time may have been missed by a staffer, thus forcing an interview to be cut short. Staffers also however, have the responsibility of shielding their bosses from potentially embarrassing questions that could lead to other questions about credibility. Which precipitated this incident is unclear.

This non-interview reveals how the most simple questions can be the most explosive, with two in particular being the time honored fuse and match. They represent the most basic questions reporters must ask whenever they are talking to a politician about a high profile and potentially politically damaging subject.  Ms. Lane managed to ask a derivative of one of them. They are:

1.  What did you know and when did you know it?

2.  Where did the money come from and where did it go?

This whole kerfuffle was because the governor said he never received a message regarding an update on the problems of Cover Oregon although a member of the legislature said they received a reply from the Governor’s office that he would.  Email messages can certainly be lost, accidentally deleted or misdirected.  Which was the cause of the truncated conversation comes down, sadly, to he said “I didn’t get the message” while she says “Oh yes you did”. But there are things the reporter can do to not get in the way of these snits because such confusion can be surprisingly illuminating. And when it happens, it’s not the reporter’s job to get in their way or save an interviewee from themselves, although there can be exceptions.   Those safeguards include:

1.  Confirming the amount of time that will be set aside for the interview in advance and re-confirming that time before the interview begins.

2.  Never taking such incidents personally.  Reporters should only be a mirror that reflects the candidate’s behavior and actions back to themselves and their audience.  A clear reflection lets the audience apply their own filter and make their own judgments on candidate viability.

I’ve said before how one of the most important things that the reporter can do during an interview is prompt a “reveal”.   But as this example shows, non interviews can prompt them as well.

Written by Interviewer

February 26, 2014 at 12:21