Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Professional

How Was I?

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pretty-please-eyes

People can be sweet.  I say that because I can’t remember how many times, after an interview, somebody looks at me with all sincerity and innocence and asks how they did?  Did their answers make sense?  Did they sound like they knew what they were talking about.  “You won’t make me sound stupid, will you?”

At these moments, it’s my job to reassure them.  “No, of course you didn’t sound stupid.”  “You’re here because you’re the expert.”  “It’s not my job to make you sound bad.”  It is my job, though, to honestly present them to the audience.  To do otherwise would be doing a disservice to them and listeners.

I once interviewed a candidate for a state office in Oregon.  This person was registered with the Secretary of State, along with a slate of qualified and assumedly, highly confident and competent competitors.  But, this person was not confident.  And as we talked, they showed their utter lack of knowledge on the most basic issues someone running for that office would need to at least be familiar with.  At the end, they asked me how they did.  I asked them how long they had been considering their run before they decided to do it.  It was a decision they had made against the advice of family and friends.  As for the reason why they sought this office, I didn’t get a clear answer either in the pre-interview, during the conversation or afterwards.

I aired the interview.  Another candidate won the office.  But still, I didn’t see it as my job to present them in any way other than how they presented themselves.  And though I tried to be gentle in my review, the fact is, they didn’t bring the goods and they sat themselves down in front of my microphone.

Everytime, an interviewer has to be professional and most times, kind.  But you can’t always protect people from themselves.

Written by Interviewer

December 27, 2016 at 07:03

How to Be Smooth

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Wireless Microphone

This is a quickie.

TV and radio are technical professions.  Everybody depends on everybody else for a smooth outcome.  Mistakes happen; lights burn out, things fall over, the wrong button gets pushed, a graphic disappears, a computer crashes.  But when they happen, people work to make them as unnoticable as possible.  That doesn’t always happen.  Reporters, anchors and hosts get caught off guard by flubs, both those of other people and their own.  They might apologize, do double takes, start something over, laugh or do any one of a thousand things people do when they’re surprised.

But being smooth is part of being professional, and sometimes, someone is so simply casual about fixing a fix that you have to admire them for it.  Such was the case with KOIN’s Sally Showman this morning.  At the 8:30 local news, traffic and weather break, the camera cut to her giving her weather forecast.  Her lips were moving but nothing was coming out.  There was a problem with her audio.  And smoothly, almost unnoticably, she reached around behind her own back, switched on her wireless microphone, and, as they say in the Army, “continued to march.”

How did she know we couldn’t hear her?  Possibly someone on the studio floor motioned to her that her mic wasn’t working.  Maybe (if she was wearing an earpiece), the director told her to turn it on.  But considering the blooper tapes I’ve seen in my life, even pros can sometimes make something as simple as pushing a button look like a Steve Martin routine.

Live broadcasting is an acquired skill.  It is a dance; gear, people, timing and electronics all choreographed while you drink your coffee.  You’ve seen so many dances that you, discerning audience that you are, know when somebody is stumbling.  So, when there’s a problem, it’s not enough to just fix it.  The fix must also be as ordinary as it is elegant.

Smooth.

Written by Interviewer

February 11, 2016 at 00:01

Falling In Love Again

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Peach

As a journalist, when you talk to someone you end up liking, either because of their work or their personality, it can be painful to hear later that they have gotten involved in some kind of personal or organizational scandal.  At that point, you have a choice – you can either try to talk with them again to find out what happened and give them a forum to tell their side of the story, or you can not talk to them because you don’t want to seem like you’re piling on.  A journalist will tend to do the first even though to the subject, it can feel like the second which is why they may not choose to talk to you.  Then, the journalist might feel like, “I like you, but are you hiding something?” which can lead to, “Were you honest with me when we first talked?” which tends to turn on the nose.

This is how skepticism forms and the reason why so many journalists have so much of it.  So each time a journalist interviews someone new, there is this push and pull.  Distance from a subject is a professional necessity of the job.  And although we may not like someone personally, we may admire what they do professionally.  Or we may not like the work they do but think they are peachy-keen.  Of course, we try to keep these feelings to ourselves.  But if we like what they do or who they are and they end up in or near bad stuff, it can be hard to not feel a little disappointed or betrayed.

Each new face, new story, new personality sings to us because we tell stories by listening to stories.  To tell it well, we have to know it well and that can draw us in.  Every time we turn on the mic, we can fall in love again.

Damn it!

Written by Interviewer

January 25, 2015 at 02:09

Police Talk

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police lights

Watching an interview with NY Police Commissioner Bill Bratton on CBS This Morning, I was reminded of how important it is for authorities to frame a discussion.

Mr. Bratton’s main and consistent response to the questions by Gail, Nora and Charlie about demonstrations in Ferguson was that unrest was caused by “professional agitators”.  The assumption he seems to be making is that legitimate demonstrations would never originate with local, grass roots frustration over perceived police injustice.  Apparently, according to the police chief, law abiding residents of a community don’t confront their own law enforcement for any legitimate reason and unrest in the streets is always the fault of outsiders.  Disturbance (as he told an NPR interviewer) of any kind doesn’t seem to be tolerable.  But isn’t even peaceful civil unrest a disturbance?  This basic disconnection between how police see the world and how people who feel victimized by the police seems to be one of the obvious and intractable problems between police and those who disagree with police policy.

By professional, I wonder if Mr. Bratton means people who are paid, or people who are considered experts such as, perhaps, Human Rights Watch?  And by agitators, does he mean people who are advising others on techniques for protest, not unlike (as he told the same NPR interviewer) the police NY sent to Missouri to advise and seek advice on how to deal with protestors?  Of course outsiders have axes to grind, leaders to taint and riots to incite.  Community leaders must scrupulously police their own ranks to insure protests are legitimate and effective.  But infiltrating protests is not just a technique for illegitimate demonstrator use.  Law enforcement agencies also have a history of using “professional agitators” for their own purposes.

BTW, Mr. Bratton never used the words “protestors” or “demonstrators” to describe anyone in any community who might be legitimately standing up against what they feel as unfair treatment by the police.  It is evidence that police departments, especially in high profile cities, are feeling under siege and their use of language is one of the tools they use to manage their own siege mentality.  It is the responsibility of media to compel them to precisely define their intentions and make clear their strategic use of tactical language.

Stump the Chump

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stump

I sometimes talk about the “dark art” aspects of journalism and interviewing.  This one is firmly rooted in the “How To’s” of discrediting an interviewee and making yourself sound smarter or more of an authority than you are.  Stump the Chump means asking questions, or pursuing lines of questioning that, on some occasions, are rhetorical and on other occasions, esoteric.  But both are intended to throw the interviewee way off their game.

How?  I have conducted interviews with people about to start a new job.  Since these people have worked very hard for this job, a listener might assume that they must have done all of their due diligence to learn about every aspect of it.  I mean, that is what the idea of “hitting the ground running” is all about.  An employer or a constituency wants to be confident that the person they have just put in this important position knows as much about it as the person about to leave it so there can be as little disruption as possible.

Journalists and interviewers can exploit this assumption to the extreme however by asking the interviewee questions purposely engineered to be outside of their knowledge.  For example, let’s say the interviewee will be part of a department that is responsible for an interactive system that updates the public on something or other.  If there have been changes to that system, or if it has been down for maintenance, a Stump the Chump question might be, “So, what can you tell me about XYZ system, and why has it been down so long?”  It’s possible that the interviewee will know about XYZ system, but it is much more likely that they don’t because they have been overly occupied in learning the broader aspects of the job; the direct responsibilities of their soon to be predecessor, the politics of the position, the specific day to day requirements, organizational structure and so forth.

But a question that seems to be germane to their duties that they have difficulty answering can make them sound unsure at best and incompetent at worst.

A good interviewer spends at least hours, and probably days plotting a course through the interviewee’s experience with a list of questions.  With that kind of birds-eye view of the interviewee, a general knowledge of the job and an overall understanding of the culture as it relates to both, interviewers can cogently test an interviewee’s knowledge in a way the listener can relate to and evaluate.

But although journalists and interviewers are intelligent and savvy enough to discover and formulate legitimate questions that the interviewee considers expertly posed, they are not the experts they are interviewing.  Journalist and interviewers with the intention to embarrass interviewees can find themselves on thin ice if they pursue this tact.  And those experts can fight back against Stump the Chump questions.

The simplest way is to simply ask them to “explain” what they mean.  Unless the interviewer has relatively deep knowledge of the inner workings of the issue, they may find themselves stuck and unable to further explain their question.  A variation of this is if the interviewee reasks the interviewer’s question “for the purposes of clarity” in an equally complex way but from a different technical direction.  Since the interviewer may have only investigated one aspect of the problem, an interviewee that forces them to repose the question from another direction can shut down that line of questioning.

Another way the interviewee can avoid being cornered is to say something along the lines of “I don’t have an answer for that right now, but I would be glad to get back to you or one of your staff with an answer/solution before the end of the day”.  This is a good come back because it shows that although they don’t know,  they promise to find out.  This can give them credibility with listeners.

Most interviewers are professional, meaning, their intention is to not think for the listeners.  That can mean not trying to funnel or filter audience thinking through their own by way of questions that emphasize one aspect of the interviewee or denigrating others aspects.  A professional interviewer asks open, honest, straightforward questions with no subtext on the assumption that the audience is intelligent and can come to their own opinions about the interviewee, their experience and qualifications for the position.  Stump the Chump questions are asked by amateurs who lack confidence or so-called professionals with an agenda.

Written by Interviewer

January 21, 2014 at 06:57

What I Can Talk About

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Kenny

You can tell you’re talking to a professional if, in the course of the interview, they say something like “What I can talk about is …” But it’s not a good sign about how the interview is going. I’ve talked a lot about what interviewers do to get an interviewee on track. But sometimes, an interviewee has to get an interviewer back on track. Usually, an interviewee says this when an interviewer is getting too personal, or asking the interviewee to talk about things beyond their realm.

I just listed to John Goodman being interviewed for his part as Sully in Monsters University. Out of the corner of my ear, I heard him say this phrase, which to me, sounded like a car alarm going off, and I swung around in my chair. One of the CBS This Morning anchors had asked him something like, did he have any idea the movie would be as successful as it had become. And Mr. Goodman spoke to what he knew, which was his passion for the part. How could he possibly have known whether the movie would’ve been successful? It’s the kind of blue sky, prognosticator question that makes the audience tear out their hair. Interviewers ask stuff like that when they don’t have anything more substantive to ask. Or maybe, in that situation, they ask it because their producer has only given them two minutes for this segment before the break, “So get him to say something cutesy or something deep, but remember, only two minutes.”

I once snagged an interview with Kenny Rogers. He was playing in Nashua, NH and I was working at a closed circuit radio station near Boston. When I got there, it was a press pool type of situation. A side room had been set up for the media and there were probably about 15 or twenty reporters from different media there. I had three or four questions. And this was in the days before the Internet, so I had gone to the library and looked up newsclips about him. My questions were about how his style had changed since he had left The First Edition, and about his strained relationship with his daughter. And even though I was new to interviewing, I noticed everybody else was asking questions about his tennis game. They were yukking it up. I guess they were thinking, “We’re just shooting the shit with Kenny,” like this opportunity comes up everyday. But I thought, “What the Hell?” I knew this was work, so I asked my questions. When he started to answer, everybody dropped their heads and started writing. When it was done, and he left to get ready for his show, his publicity person came up to me and said, “You asked the best questions.”

I’m not working at a CBS or a CNN. But hackers who created Linux don’t work for Microsoft either. What I’m saying is the rules for being good at what you do aren’t just the domain of the big names. Little gals and guys out here with podcasts and field recorders and Audacity can do it good, and do it right. And sometimes, that not only means asking questions with meat, but not trying to take your guest outside of where they want or need to be. Only your research can help you draw those boundaries. And if you’ve done a good job, you’ll be surprised at just how big that space can be.

P.S. About gals doing it good and right, Constance A. Dunn on Soundcloud is doing some great interviews with Serbian thinkers and musicians. Ren Green at KBOO is rocking her author interviews on her new podcast, “Experience Points”, just like Courtney Crosslin with her guests at haveawonderful.com and Deanna Woodward, The Veteran’s Coach. Give them all a listen.