Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘interviewee

Answers about Questions

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iur

This is a quickie.

As I labor through a project I’m currently working on, the question of questions came to mind.  Specifically, the questions a reporter should be asking in interviews while doing their reporting.  I am thinking of two types of questions to ask and two types of questions to not ask;

To Ask:
Questions you think the audience would ask if they could
Questions that compel the interviewee to reveal something you or they didn’t expect

To Not Ask
Questions that sound like you’re reading them
Questions that you think make you sound smart

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Written by Interviewer

December 21, 2015 at 12:19

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.

Written by Interviewer

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?”

Written by Interviewer

February 21, 2015 at 06:28

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 Outrageous Sh*t People Say

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controversy

Interviewers can’t afford to judge the people they’re interviewing for two main reason.  First, if they judge, the interviewee may stop talking.  Usually, the more a person talks, the more comfortable they get.  And if they feel they are being allowed the freedom to get comfortable, they will, over time, be more and more honest with what they are saying, even if those view are repugnant to many listeners.

The fact that those opinions may be repugnant to some is not the point, however.  The point is allowing them to be heard and then, letting the public whether represented by the legal system, the activist community or the woman on the street, to respond.  They may respond with new legislation, an arrest or the kind of public pressure Americans are so good at applying.

It is not the job of the interviewer to judge.  It is the job of the interviewer to honestly provide a direct highway from the interviewee’s mouth to the listener’s ears and let the chips fall where they may with the acknowledgement that sometimes, there is no reaction.  Maybe people are not listening because they’re doing something else.  Or maybe they are listening but they don’t see the subject as rising to a level where it affects them directly enough to respond.  But that too is not the interviewer’s job to worry about.

The other reason why an interviewer can’t judge is because judgement tends to lead to confrontation.  An interviewee with a controversial view has been honed with a prize fighter’s prowess to hit back whenever they feel attacked.  And a judging interviewer may question those views in such a way that the interviewee feels attacked.  This can escalate until you have both trying to outtalk each other.  It is bad for the interviewer because it lessens his credibility but great for the interviewee because he has been able to draw a heretofore impartial interviewer down to the level of shouting.  You’ve heard the expression, “Never wrestle with a pig.  You get covered in mud and the pig likes it”.  That is a saying that should be at the front of every interviewer’s mind whenever they find themselves in conversation with someone with controversial views.

Again, the best and only thing a good interviewer can and should do is make it comfortable for their interviewees to talk and then, let them.

Written by Interviewer

August 12, 2014 at 00:49

Things That Go Bump

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Shoe

This is a quickie.

Most studios have microphones that are mounted to boom arms that are attached to walls or ceilings.  Back in the day, it was more common that microphones were attached to boom arms that were bolted to desktops.  And in many studios, microphones were in movable stands that sat directly on those desktops.  Why am I bringing this up?

Because those relatively unsophisticated setups of guest mics on desktops gave listeners another aspect of the passion guests might have for an issue.  How?

Because when a guest pounded a desk, you could hear it.

Today, besides mounting microphones away from anything that can pick up vibration, many microphones rest inside what are known as shock mounts which absorb even more vibration.  In a studio, vibration is seen as the enemy of good quality audio.  But when you are interviewing a guest with a old school setup, vibration can be your friend.

When I say pounding the desk, I don’t mean Nikita Khrushchev style shoe pounding the poduim at the UN pounding.  I mean very soft but distinctive bumping the hand or a semi closed fist on a desktop whenever the answer holds a lot of passion and energy for the guest.  When a guest chooses to do that bumping can be telling and often, they don’t even realize they’re doing it.  It’s another one of those unconscious “tells” that I’ve talked about before here. Conversely, holding back emotion and showing no tells is the anti-emotive, which I talk about here.

An interviewee may be answering a question for which, if you listen to their voice, they seem very calm.  But hearing their hand bumping the desktop belies a passion and conviction much deeper.  And when they do that is also significant, as they may be unknowingly emphasizing to themselves how strongly they feel about something.  These are things the interviewer needs to pay attention to because they can help him or her direct the next question.

An interview is a complex interaction between the interviewer and the interviewee.  Then there is the interaction between the audience and the interview.  But often, the key aspect of a conversation is guest interaction with themselves.

Written by Interviewer

July 20, 2014 at 01:24

The Callback. Sike!

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Nervous

Sometimes, it never comes.  You talk to someone and they say they can unequivocally help you.  They say they know people who can help you.  And if they can’t find anybody else, they promise they themselves will help you.  And then they don’t.  If you’re on deadline, this is the worst because you have this promise in your back pocket.  You’re assuming you’ll get what you need when you need it from this source who worked so hard to convince you that they are reliable.  They may sing their own praises all day long before they promise to help you, but not after they decide they can’t.  Afterwards, they don’t call, they don’t email, nothing.  Crickets.  They’re OK with that.  And you have to be too.

Maybe something comes up and politically, they were reminded that they were offering to speak on something way above their pay grade.  Or maybe they got cold feet or realized they weren’t the expert they thought they were.  Or maybe they just changed their mind because they remembered they hate the media and along the way decided that if they ignore you, you and their broken promise would just go away.  So what do you do?

From the beginning, you don’t believe them.  You call five other sources as soon as you hang up.  And then you call five more because you know one of them will call you back.  And you get what you need and you move on.  You forgive them, because people say a lot of things they shouldn’t say when a reporter calls and don’t say a lot of things they should say when a reporter calls.  They can’t help it.  We just have this power.

And then you forget them because you’re still on deadline.

If the source that promised to call in an hour calls in three and the story is long since done, you say thank you and hang up.  Because if they really wanted that story told and if they really wanted a voice in telling it, they would’ve called you back with something and sooner.  But if they don’t call back at all, that’s OK too because at some point in the future, they’ll have a story they desperately want told.  And you’ll be there.

Written by Interviewer

July 16, 2014 at 12:02