Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Question

No, it Doesn’t

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Crossed Arms

The current chaos surrounding the Rio Olympics, whether it’s Zika or the polluted water or over-priced and soon to be ghost venues led reporters at BBC’s “Newshour” to ask athletes already there, “Do you think the Olympic Games have been tainted by all of the bad news?”

One unnamed athlete said, “No, I don’t think so”.  But in the next breath said, “but I don’t think it’s in a good place” which they capped with the question, “Does that make sense?”

This post isn’t about Rio.  It’s about the question “Does that make sense?” and how obviously flawed it is as an answer.  As blogger Jared Fuller asked in January, “What’s worse than hearing this phrase is saying it.”  He admits that, “Asking “Does that make sense?” comes from a place of innocence – maybe even a place of compassion. You want to affirm that your prospect understands what you’re saying, so you ask the question and mean it. Unfortunately, it actually just confuses the prospect, which is the opposite of what you were going for.”

Fuller calls it a “transitional phrase” which is really just a place holder, like, “ummmmm”.  There is no real information in it because it’s strictly rhetorical; a device for passing the conversation back to the other person which, would seem to be a good thing since it facilitates more conversation.

But Fuller also calls it a dumb question because by asking the question, the asker is setting the answerer up to judge the intelligence of the question and consequently, the intelligence of the asker.  And in some cases, the asker may actually and passive-aggressively be questioning the intelligence of the answerer.  The Harvard Business Review says that besides making the person you’re talking to question whether you know what you’re talking about, it transmits the message that you don’t think the listener isn’t smart enough get it.

It’s been a long while since I’ve heard it.  I had hoped its corpse had already begun to rot.  But perhaps it is finally passing through the body of public usage.  With this interview, I hope it gets flushed.

Written by Interviewer

August 4, 2016 at 04:51

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.

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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?”

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February 21, 2015 at 06:28

The Answer you Want versus The Answer you Get

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its-not-warming-its-dying-campaign-to-tackle-climate-change-1-640x640-590x590

Jian Ghomeshi recently interviewed Milton Glaser, an ad man who has taken on the task of bringing the warming of the earth into public consciousness with a jarring image that implies the earth is dying.  It shows the green of the earth being overtaken by black.  During the course of the interview, Ghomeshi asks Glaser why he decided to take on this challenge.

As a listener and an interviewer, I hear this question and I automatically assume both a reason for the question and anticipate an answer.  The reason, namely, since Mr. Glaser is 85, might Ghomeshi be asking him if he is taking on the cause because he is of advanced years and wants to do something both big, and something that deeply affects his and all of our lives in an intimate way before the end of his own life?

And the answer I assume is, yes, that is true because … and then Mr. Glaser would talk about the changes he’s seen, or how he himself was never sold on the idea of an earth that’s getting hotter but as he’s grown older, he gradually become aware of a truth he can’t ignore.  Or maybe he’d say something like he’s at an age where he doesn’t really care about how people in general or people in advertising in particular might react to his methods.

Perhaps I wrongly assume the question and the answer, but I still assume them.

And then, he says something completely different.  He says, “Yikes” in a way that implies he hadn’t really thought about why he decided to take on this work.  And as both a listener and an interviewer, I’m disappointed and I think, “How could you not think about what drove you do this?”  Worse, I think “How could you not answer the way I though you would?”

That’s pretty terrible, I know.

The thing about interviews and interviewing is they don’t always line up.  You hear a set of questions that seems to point to an answer like bowling pins to a strike.  But then, you get something completely different and you’re thrown.

But then again, maybe not.  Maybe you are living in the moment and appreciate the answer because you weren’t thinking you were smarter that the person actually answering the question.  Or maybe you had the thought but you pushed it out of your mind as ridiculously pretentious.

When you talk to a lot of people, you hear a lot of answers.  And when you’re coming up with questions, sometimes, you have a bias.  There is a certain thing you want to hear and when you don’t hear it, as an interviewer, sometimes you ask the same question again because you’re thinking, “OK, I’m going to lay this out for you and please say what I’m expecting.”  When it doesn’t happen, as an interviewer it can be frustrating because you might think the answer in your head is better than the answer in your guest’s head.

But it’s not true.  It never is.  And it never will be.

Bad listener/interviewer.  Bad.

Do The Math

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Image

The responsibility of a listener is to listen to the question the interviewer asks and listen to the answer the interviewee answers and decide if the answer answered the question.  Sometimes, you have to ignore the softness or confidence or the tone of an interviewee’s voice you like.  Those things might just be sizzle.  And politicians, like advertisers know that when selling steaks, sell the sizzle.  But when choosing someone to represent you in government, remember that the sizzle won’t feed you and if the meat is rotten, you still go hungry.

Think of what you hear from a politician like an addition problem.  On one side are some numbers:

1+2

And on the other side is a number:

3

And in between them is something that promises they’re the same:

=

When a politician is asked a question, listen to the answer to see if the answer actually addresses the question.  Do the question and the answer have equal weight, equal validity.  Do they both point in the same direction which should be toward understanding the essence of the answer as it strictly relates to the essence of the question?  Does the answer fill holes the question opens up in a subject?  Check what you hear, since sometimes, when politicians answer a question, you get this:

1+2=3333333333333333333333333333333 (way too much)

Or, this:

1+2=2.99 (not quite enough)

Or this:

1+2=Tallahassee, FL (completely unrelated)

Or this:

1+2=49 (just plain wrong)

Whenever you hear this:

1+2=3

Then, you know you’ve heard a real answer and this person can probably be trusted to be truthful.  Agreement with them is less important than truthfulness since truthfulness tends to lead to respect.  And respect, even between people at different ends of the political spectrum who don’t agree, is still the holy grail of how politics should ideally work.

I’ve talked before about how some interviewees either intentionally or unintentionally don’t answer questions.  Always, it’s the job of the interviewer to detect those inconsistencies and flush them out.  And sometimes, the interviewee is trying to answer a poorly posed question.  That’s the interviewer’s fault, not theirs.  But either way dear listener, in the end, know that it’s your responsibility to do the math.

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April 15, 2014 at 02:22

I Agree

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Image

This is a quickie.

I’ve been doing a lot of interviews with politicians as part of a project to invite as many Oregon 2014 candidates as possible to the microphone and let the public hear their views.  In many cases, these candidates have been ignored by their party in favor of candidates that have already been approved by the larger political machine.  In others, the candidates don’t affiliate themselves with that machine, opting instead to run a “grass roots” campaign.

The point of this post, though, is messaging and how some candidates, even if unknown, are much better at it than others.  An interviewee with experience turning the agenda during an interview can use many tricks to do that.  A really cool one is trying to subtlety make the interviewer complicit to their point of view.  For example, consider this exchange;

Q: What do you think about the opinion of some that taxes are too high?

A:  I agree with you that taxes are too high, and this is how I would fix that …

I agree with you?  The interviewer was asking a question about a question, not making a statement or giving a personal opinion.  But to bring credibility to their own views about taxes, a clever interviewee might turn the question into an opportunity to trick the listener into thinking the interviewer has the same opinion about taxes as the interviewee.  This technique can be used for any subject, and the interviewer must immediately challenge the reply by making clear that they have no position on the subject.  But if the interviewee manages to slip it in, the egregious “I agree with you that taxes are too high, and …” can simply be edited out.

I’ve talked about credibility dangers the interviewer can face.  The interviewee is not talking with you to enhance your credibility.  They are there to enhance their own and sometimes, they will try to do that by any means necessary.  An interviewer’s job is to make clear everything the interviewee reveals without allowing their own credibility to suffer in the process.  As I’ve said, the point of these interviews is to let people hear the candidates and their views.  Hopefully, they also hear how and what the candidate doesn’t say.

Written by Interviewer

April 14, 2014 at 23:45

Run it Down or Let it Go?

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Sirens

I talk about interviewing as if the interviewer is like a Greek warrior, always at the top of their game. But it’s not always that simple or affirming.  Sometimes, most times, an interview is a conversation.  But sometimes, it’s a hunt. It’s seek and evade.  Sometimes, the interviewer fails to get to the truth or the point because they’ve been diverted or hall of mirrored. And when you realize its happened, it doesn’t feel good.

The most common way is when an interviewer asks a simple question, and what they get is a long and elaborate backstory that provides deep and wide context of the situation.  The problem is that it offers everything except an answer to the question.  But it may be so smoothly or forcefully delivered that two things happen in the interviewer’s mind.  Either they think, “What was my question again?  I don’t remember but that sure was a rich, elaborate and coloful reply” or “I know that wasn’t an answer.  But after all that, I’m just going to let that non-answer go and move onto the next question”.

What should be going through the interviewer’s mind is, “I’ll be damned … you don’t have a clue, do you?” “You are trying to blow smoke up my ass, aren’t you?”  “Are you avoiding me on purpose?”  What should be going through the interviewer’s mind is “You didn’t answer the question, so I’m going to ask it again.  Maybe a different way, but it’s coming.  Get ready”.  It should be said though that it can also be the case that the interviewer didn’t ask the question clearly enough, so the interviewee misunderstood it.  So they paint around the center because they don’t really know what you want.  But in the end, an answer that’s not an answer can’t explain away the fact that there is no “there” there.  What that means for the interview recording session is large chunks of the conversation end up in the delete folder.  For a live audience, it can leave them trying to find the point in huge bubbles of nothing.

That doesn’t mean an answer might not be in there, though.  Sometimes, an interviewee will answer your question by first repeating it in some way, give a big block of history and finally, summarize their answer.  When you’re trying to get to the essence of their answer, many interviewers/editors will connect the beginning to the end and cut out the middle with little change in the overall message, which can be a plus.

For those times though when the result isn’t so neat and clean, you may have to repeat your question.  And asking the same question can piss off an interviewee, especially if they’re intention was to get you off track.  And interviewing etiquette is a lot like any other kind of social etiquette; when somebody is doing something unacceptable, watching them do it in a bald faced kind of way is almost as socially unacceptable as whatever they’re doing that you’re staring at.  But the problem isn’t you acknowledging the breaking of convention, it’s them breaking it.  So if they get mad because you caught them not doing something they implied they were qualified to do when they agreed to talk with you, the problem is theirs not yours.

But of course, like Odysseus, you have to get past the silver tongued devils first.

Written by Interviewer

March 4, 2014 at 12:17