Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Feelings

Social Engineering, Radio Style

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Mouth and Microphone

You can hear an announcer sound friendly.  It’s when the corners of their mouth go up in a smile as they talk.  You can actually hear it in your earbuds or speakers when it happens.  It’s tangible.  Just like you can hear when they inject a momentary laugh (that sounds almost like a stutter) into a sentence.  In both cases, the speaker is trying to connect with you emotionally because they’ve been trained that a happy announcer makes for a relaxed listener.

You’ll hear that very short laugh, most often, when the speaker has made a mistake, like if they mispronounce a word.  Almost instantly, you’ll hear the stutter laugh, which is deployed in a self-deprecating manner that says, “I’m human and I made a mistake. Isn’t that funny?”   It’s interesting that so many announcers do it considering they are also trained to not draw attention to mistakes.  But you’ll also hear that laugh when the announcer is trying to grease a thought that will help you slide along beside their intention.  For instance, if a news reader is talking about a non profit’s mission that they believe in, although they can’t say so, they may unconsciously give a stutter laugh that quickly says, “This thing is good”, thus sending a flash message that it’s worth your consideration.

I also hear the stutter laugh is when the announcer, host or interviewer has a degree of contempt for something they’ve just heard or read.  But most professionals are savvy enough to know that also sends a quick and clear message that could cause the audience to question their credibility and impartiality (if their audience cares about such things), so they don’t use that laugh as much.  Often, I hear it used somewhere in a statement to add a momentary bit of levity to that statement.  And sometimes, I hear it when the speaker is reacting to something that either is or isn’t funny, but only mildly so.  But in almost all cases, it’s not about humor.

The smiling behind the mic is a little more involved.  Admittedly, when I hear someone who sounds technically proficient but low on emotion versus someone who sounds warm, I gravitate to the warmth.  In most situations where someone you can’t see is talking through a smile, they’re going to sound warm.  The thing about that is even though it sounds really sincere, you couldn’t get away with it in person.

There’s this thing called the Facial Action Coding System, which was developed back in the 1970s.  It identified every muscle of the face and created a matrix of combinations that identified almost every human emotion depending on which muscles you moved.  Whether the test subjects actually felt the emotions that gave them the faces, or whether they forced the faces, the emotions, strangely, followed.

But faked emotions don’t work when you’re facing another human being because we’re way too sophisticated to be fooled by feelings that aren’t real even if all the right muscles are pulled.  We add body language and vocal quality to facial expressions to help us calculate the honesty of the person we’re talking to.  In interviews where people are sitting across from each other and feelings are faked, you can hear the conversation fall like a cinder block into a cow pasture.

You can only pull off false sincerity if nobody can see you (though, political campaigns would seem to contradict this).  That’s different from a conversation that both people are clearly enjoying.  There, you can hear the goodwill and the smiles are not fake.  I’m not talking about that.  I’m talking about the other thing; a solo announcer talking to and trying to somehow sway, the coveted “you”.

Talking through smiles and stutter laughs are two tools people behind microphones use to connect with you.  And most likely, they use them so well, you hardly notice because they’re designed to set you at ease, not raise your awareness.  These people don’t know you, but they want you to feel like they do (or would want to).  Because in the world of broadcasting, where a successful connection means money or feet on the street, that’s good enough.

Written by Interviewer

March 22, 2016 at 05:14

Clap Clap Clap

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Baby Clapping

You know that thing adults do with babies, when they clap with a clapping baby and the baby gets excited so it claps too?  You can hear something like that happen sometimes in interviews.  A guest is explaining something of significance to them and their voice jumps in excitement or it becomes animated in some way.  That’s a good thing.  You want your guest to be excited about whatever it is they’re talking about.  What’s not so good is when the interviewer responds in a way that can sound contrived.  You’ve heard it.  Person A is describing something they care about and person B, not wanting to seem unenthusiastic, mirrors their excitement when it’s clear they’re aren’t excited at all.

I wish interviewers wouldn’t do this.  And I don’t doubt that they probably wish they hadn’t done it the moment they do it.  But it’s understandable why they do it.  Reflecting the tone of voice and body language of the person you’re talking to are techniques not just of interviews but of good communication in general.  Humans are basic in that we want to feel an affinity with whom we’re sharing space and feelings.  So in a lot of ways, when we’re telling our own story, we’re not much different than that happy baby.  We just want to see a smiling face smiling back at us, affirming us.  But to the listener, it can sound like the investment isn’t so deep.

To me, this can be one of those dangers of interviewing, like a scratchy microphone or a hum that won’t go away.  Because as I’ve said before, the interview is a three way between you, the guest and the audience.  And even if the guest doesn’t hear the flatness in an interviewer’s effort to sound up, the audience certainly will.  And if it keeps happening, the audience will start to question the interviewer’s sincerity.

So if it’s happening, what can an interviewer do to fix it?  If they know they do it, they can maybe ask themselves is it just this guest, or have they hit a rut in their interviewing style?  If it’s the guest, maybe they can look for something the guest does that truly excites them.  Asking about that thing during the course of the conversation might help recharge the interviewer so that their questions and enthusiasm sound sincere.  But if it’s something they find themselves doing in all of their interviews, maybe they’ve hit a wall.  Maybe they’ve gotten a little bored.

A way they can try to fix it is to use a trick proofreaders are told catch mistakes; read the text backwards, starting at the period.  This turns the idea of reading on its head and causes one to pay a lot more attention.  Likewise, interviewers who are sounding tired can ask other interviewers to interview them for a change.  It’s a way to rediscover their own excitement for what they do as well as be the one doing the sharing.  Who knows, maybe they might be surprised to find some of it is even enthusiastic.

Written by Interviewer

December 9, 2014 at 10:30

Links in the Media Chain

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“Here lies one whose name is writ in water”.  That’s on the headstone of the grave of poet John Keats.  In his time and ours, it means that there is no such thing as the irreplaceable person. I’m thinking about this as I remember all of the commentators, journalists and reporters who I used to see and hear and don’t anymore.  But also, how when I do hear or see them again, I realize how I, against my will, stopped thinking about them and how insidious that tendency to forget can be.

Most recently, I think of KOIN’s Chad Carter.  Mr. Carter was a morning host for KOIN’s morning news broadcast before he was let go just about 10 days ago.  In an interview with KOIN Meteorologist Bruce Sussman back in 2011, he said he grew up in Portland and interned at KTVZ in Bend, Oregon.  He lived in Texas before getting the chance to come back to Oregon in 2006.  He worked for local rival KPTV and was eventually hired at KOIN.  You just can’t think of anyone more home-towney than that.

But Mr. Carter is just the most recent example of people who were heavily in the limelight and suddenly one day, they were just gone.  Even his profile has been removed from KOIN, as if the station wants to erase any history of him ever being there.  That’s how institutions behave.  But we the public can be just as selective.

For instance, Mo Rocca is the new “it” for CBS This Morning.  He’s portrayed as a guy Friday who is all purpose funny and versatile.  Just what a news show wanting to have a good mix of professional and fun needs to stay on top of the ratings.  But a couple generation ago, it was George Plimpton.  And as funny as Mr. Rocca is, I can imagine that a couple of generations from now, people will be thinking of him in the same way I think of Rudolph Valentino.

I’m also thinking of people like Daniel Pinkwater.  Mr. Pinkwater is a children’s author who was a regular on National Public Radio for years with host Scott Simon before he suddenly wasn’t anymore. Horticulturalist Ketzel Levine, the so-called “Doyan of Dirt” by Mr. Simon; also inexplicably didn’t appear in her regular timeslot one Saturday morning several years ago.  Sports commentator Frank Deford, also on NPR, seemed to be seamlessly replaced by Mike Pesca and Stephen Fatus.  And financial expert Marshall Goodman was a fixture on the American Public Media Program “Marketplace” until he, along with previous host David Brown, vanished.  Often, there is no explanation as to why the people are gone, and if there isn’t, that’s probably a good indication that the parting wasn’t amicable.

Sometimes, these people refuse to be forgotten.  Ann Curry’s saga with Matt Lauer on the “Today” show is more of a management than journalism case study in behind the scenes politics at morning TV news broadcast shows.  But Ms. Curry has thrived despite the misery Mr. Lauer inflicted on her and his ham handed methods to try to clean up his own image in light of it.

And Barbara Walters, who will tomorrow announce her retirement from TV on “The View” did not let Harry Reasoner destroy her during ABC’s co-anchor experiment in the 70s.  Then ABC News’ Roone Arledge gets credit for seeing her real power was in reporting, not putting up with crap from someone who didn’t realize he was already behind the march of history.

But many excellent journalists and reporters have been scraped from the credits and scrapped because media companies are moneymakers and they are constantly shaking them to make mo’ money, mo’ money.  Consultants and focus groups drive budgets, whether they’re fueled by donations or stock prices.  And when colleagues get the ax, you are sad and at the same time, maybe guilty that you still have your job.  Maybe angry that the team has a hole in it (NCIS fans know this feeling well), but silent because you know where the power lies and it’s not in front of the camera.

That’s something else about not being indispensable.  It seems ones life goes smoother if one doesn’t see oneself as being more important than one ultimately is.  If Dante had an inferno for reporters, there would probably only be four levels rather than nine.  The top ring would be for innocents who were unjustly fired.  The next one would be for the incompetent.  The next would be for the stupid and the bottom ring closest to the fire would be for the pompous.  And because of this tragic flaw, the media gods hate them most.

What reporters and journalists do is important, but we can’t act like it is.  Because I think we are all just links in a chain from the past to the future and there is a lot of humility in that.  Sort of like lying on the ground at night and looking up at all of the stars.  It makes you feel kinda small, or at least it should in the healthy, non-sociopathic.  The people from the past likely couldn’t imagine us and the people in the future likely won’t remember us. So the work we do now has to be to make the best “us” we can.  To improve on those that came before us and give a good foundation for those who come after us but ego-wise, I don’t think any of it can be about us.

So getting back to Keats, it seems there is little to be done about a finicky public that cries for what it says it loves and misses until somebody dangles something shiny in front of its face.  In every one of these cases, only insiders know what really led to these arrivals and departures. But you can bet media managment have their talent and reporters on tight leashes to keep bad feelings from you letting their smiling faces into your living room.  Maybe Mr. Carter is a standard bearer for those who realize that all you can do is to do your best, keep calm and then, … move on