Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘interviewee

Answers about Questions

leave a comment »

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

Written by Interviewer

December 21, 2015 at 12:19

Redundant?

leave a comment »

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

leave a comment »

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

leave a comment »

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

leave a comment »

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

leave a comment »

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!

leave a comment »

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

Are You There?

leave a comment »

Image

This is a quickie.

I’ve talked before about some of the techniques interviewers use to get people to talk, including things that are against the conventions of regular conversation that make them so uncomfortable that it forces them to talk.

One of those things is the forced silence interviewers employ to make people keep talking.  In regular conversation, most people struggle to avoid dead, awkward silence.  But reporters and interviewers, as a way to make people talk about things they’d rather avoid, sometimes stay purposely quiet, leaving the interviewee to stand alone in that silence.  Within moments, usually, they say something, anything, to not be in that silence anymore.

Nancy Updike, a producer for This American Life recently used this tried and true technique to mixed effect.  Ms. Updike was doing a story about Iraqis and how they privately claim a shiite or sunni identity but profess an Iraqi nationalism publicly.  In the course of her interviews, she was talking to an Iraqi university professor that was describing this tendency of Iraqis to do this.

This is a good place to stop and say that many times, reporters want to drive home a point by in some way, putting a spotlight on it.  Whether it’s the special emphasis with which a narrator says certain words, quotations in a print story, a camera operator lingering on a shot for a overly long moment or, as seemed to be the case with Ms. Updike in this story, forcing silence on silence.

It seemed to me that Ms. Updike was not only trying to show the hypocrisy of the professor by focusing listener attention on the fact that this authority was part of the problem he was describing, but forcing that expert to dig his own hole of hypocrisy even deeper by leaving him in reporter silence to ramble about that hyporcisy.

To an extent, the technique worked in that the professor admitted that, yes, he did do what he said Iraqis in general do.  But it stopped working when that authority, having admitted his complicity, stopped talking and, in fact, started calling out to Ms. Updike.  She had remained so quiet for so long that he thought the connection had been broken.

At that point, Ms. Updike’s silence started to look unnecessary.  The admission had been extracted and journalism had been served.  When the professor started to call out, “Nancy, Nancy …” he was suddenly humanized in a way we all can relate to when we are talking with someone and sharing ourselves only to realize the call may have dropped.

She jumped back in, acknowledging that she was still there and after that, there were no more forced silences.  But it is an instructive example that every journalistic technique walks a wire between information gathering and manipulation.  And for a storyteller, you probably don’t want your audience thinking you’re more prone to the latter.

You can hear this at about the 49:30 minute point at this “This American Life” episode #529 The Human Spectacle.

Written by Interviewer

June 30, 2014 at 01:24

Crosstalk

with one comment

Image

Alan Mulally, the President of Ford Motor Company, was on CBS This Morning with Charlie Rose and Nora O’Donnell.  Mr. Mulally is about to leave the leadership of Ford, and he was talking with Mr. Rose about Ford and his transition.  By watching Mr. Mulally’s body language, you could tell this was someone who is either naturally comfortable and confident, or someone who has an excellent public relations staff.  He leaned forward on the newsdesk toward Mr. Rose with his fingers interlocked.  His expression was calm, his manner was casual.  He was in full control of himself.

Sometimes though, an interviewee like this can be a challenge to an interviewer because of that confidence.  And at one point during the conversation, Mr. Rose and Mr. Mulally were both talking, and they proceeded to do so for at least 5-10 seconds.  People are careful to avoid this in day-to-day conversation in the real world.  And if it starts to happen, it certainly doesn’t last 5-10 seconds.   Usually, when one person realizes they are interrupting another person and are being “rude”, one of them will stop to let the other person continue.  But in interviewing, it is often the case that interviewer and interviewee will try to talk over each other.

Why this happens can vary.  Sometimes, if it’s the interviewee, it may simply be a case of them not realizing the other person is talking because they are so focused on what is in their own mind.  A variant of that is someone who has such a large ego that they aren’t really interested in dialouging with the other person and instead, see them only as a facilitator for their own thoughts.  In another, someone may feel they have been mischaracterized or that their point has been misunderstood and they are trying to take control of the direction of the conversation.

If it’s the interviewer, perhaps they know the interviewee has a reputation of treating interviewers in a subordinate manner and so they come ready to stand toe-to-toe, conversationally speaking.  Or maybe they understand that the interviewee is a high energy person who speaks out of enthusiasm and passion but tends to get on a roll.  For the purposes of time, the interviewer may know they need to govenor the pace to keep the talk on track.  Jian Ghomeshi of the CBC radio program, “Q” also does this.  Ghomeshi, when his pace is ramped up either for time, to match the rythmn of his guest or out of his own sheer excitement, has a staccato way of questioning which when at a fever pitch can sound like swordfighting.

This is similar to when an interviewer is slow-walking a question and, in essence, beating a guest to death with a rubber mallet.  Crosstalk can be both invigorating and frustrating to listeners. Invigorating because it shows that interviews aren’t always the cool and professional conversations most people envision them to be.  Frustrating because when everybody is talking, it can sound like an episode of “Modern Family” – you know something is going on, but you just can’t figure out what.

When Will They Ever Learn?

leave a comment »

Image

Yesterday morning, Jeremy Hobson of the NPR Program Here and Now was interviewing Cardiff Garcia of the Financial Times.  The conversation was about drug company Pfizer trying to again acquire drug company AstraZeneca.

At the end of the interview, no doubt because Mr. Hobson was running out of time, he asked Mr. Garcia for a one word answer as to whether recent mergers in the drug industry represented a healthy or unhealthy environment for the companies.

Mr. Garcia gave Mr. Hobson exactly 78 words.

By telling an interviewee to answer a question in a single word, phrase or sentence, professional interviewers like to think they have total control over interviews and interviewees.  But professional interviewees know how to play this game too.  And often, they will talk just as long as they want until they themselves hear the cue music loud in their headphones, indicating that the host is experiencing a panic attack, trying to end the interview on time.

This tactic represents a kind of insincerity in the interviewing profession.  Maybe interviewers assume they won’t get a one word answer.  Maybe it’s a”wink wink, nod nod” kind of thing between the two.  When I say one word, it means you need to wrap it up.  We all know issues can be complicated and sometimes to protect their own credibility, a guest can’t or won’t try to boil down a request to answer an impossibly complex question into a one word answer.

But sometimes, when interviewers say, “one word”, interviewees do respond with “one word”.  So, there is a consistency problem that might not completely set with some listeners.  Interviewers probably sense somewhere that it is, to some extent, unfair to expect an nterviewee to boil something down to a single word.  If an interviewee can do it, then they should.  If an interviewer is asking them for a one word answer, it’s because they are out of time but want to put a bow on the point of the conversation.  Or maybe it’s because they know the interviewee can be long winded and they don’t want to find themselves out of time.  Besides, it certainly makes it more likely that an interviewee will be invited on other programs if they can show that they can summarize in a crunch.

But the interviewer can’t cram every second of the interview with questions and then leave the interviewee no time to answer the final question “lightning round” style.

It reminds me of a sign I used to see inside a lot of office cubes; “A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part”.  That applies to interviewing too. Each side should to be aware of and sensitive to the needs and limitations of the other.

Written by Interviewer

April 30, 2014 at 23:42