Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘reveal

Answers about Questions

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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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December 21, 2015 at 12:19

The Deep Breath

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This is a quickie.

I’ve noticed that some questions make some people take very deep breaths before they answer. The American Stress Institute says a deep breath is a signal that someone is trying to relieve stress about a situation. When we are frightened or simply stressed, we tend to hold our breath or take rapid, shallow breaths. Our hearts pound and muscles clench as our adrenaline kicks in.

To me, deep breaths seem to almost always be a signal of one of three things:

(1) The guest doesn’t know the subject and are afraid their lack of knowledge will cause them to embarrass themselves, or

(2) They know the subject very well and are afraid their answer might reveal something about themselves they may not want to reveal, or sometimes,

(3) They are relieved that I didn’t ask a question they thought was coming.

Then again, sometimes people just forget to breathe.

You might sometimes hear the same type of response to 1 & 2; evasive, non-specific or rambling. For number 3, the guest might suddenly perk up and their responses get brighter because they are more relaxed.

If you’re interviewing someone and you hear a deep breath, remember the trigger or the context. There is something there somewhere that may spark a reveal later.

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April 8, 2014 at 04:00

I Don’t Have to Take This.

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Oregon’s governor, John Kitzhaber, walked out of an interview with KATU reporter Kelly Lane in early January after four minutes and two questions.  Staff cut the interview short because they said the governor needed to stay on schedule.  But coincidentally, the interview ended immediately after Ms. Lane asked Mr. Kitzhaber about the failed Cover Oregon website. The governor’s office has taken an intense amount of what some would call well deserved heat for a breakdown in the site at practically every level of its development and implementation.

There are many reasons why a prior appointment time may have been missed by a staffer, thus forcing an interview to be cut short. Staffers also however, have the responsibility of shielding their bosses from potentially embarrassing questions that could lead to other questions about credibility. Which precipitated this incident is unclear.

This non-interview reveals how the most simple questions can be the most explosive, with two in particular being the time honored fuse and match. They represent the most basic questions reporters must ask whenever they are talking to a politician about a high profile and potentially politically damaging subject.  Ms. Lane managed to ask a derivative of one of them. They are:

1.  What did you know and when did you know it?

2.  Where did the money come from and where did it go?

This whole kerfuffle was because the governor said he never received a message regarding an update on the problems of Cover Oregon although a member of the legislature said they received a reply from the Governor’s office that he would.  Email messages can certainly be lost, accidentally deleted or misdirected.  Which was the cause of the truncated conversation comes down, sadly, to he said “I didn’t get the message” while she says “Oh yes you did”. But there are things the reporter can do to not get in the way of these snits because such confusion can be surprisingly illuminating. And when it happens, it’s not the reporter’s job to get in their way or save an interviewee from themselves, although there can be exceptions.   Those safeguards include:

1.  Confirming the amount of time that will be set aside for the interview in advance and re-confirming that time before the interview begins.

2.  Never taking such incidents personally.  Reporters should only be a mirror that reflects the candidate’s behavior and actions back to themselves and their audience.  A clear reflection lets the audience apply their own filter and make their own judgments on candidate viability.

I’ve said before how one of the most important things that the reporter can do during an interview is prompt a “reveal”.   But as this example shows, non interviews can prompt them as well.

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February 26, 2014 at 12:21

“We didn’t talk about this in the pre-interview.”

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Lindsey Lohan

Interviewing, which is really just conversation, is never far from any of our lives.  “Conversing” is what we all do with each other.  It, along with body language and facial expressions, is how we decide each other to be safe or not, trustworthy or not, credible or not.

That’s why the conversation between Dave Letterman and Lindsey Lohan was such a wonderful lesson for us all.  Lots has been written about Ms. Lohan’s career.  Yes, she is young and talented.  And much has been written about her public displays.  Yes, courts have determined she needs supervision.  But neither of those was really what their conversation last night was about.

An excellent conversation is about what I call the reveal.  To cause a reveal, an interviewer has to be both skillful, like a surgeon with a scalpel, and a pummeler, like a bruiser in the ring.  Dave Letterman is a jester, but that’s not all he is.  You don’t have a late night TV interview show for more than 30 years by just being a clown.  In fact, savvy viewers know by now that the clown cleverly disguises the commando.  And when someone with the conversational skill set of David Letterman starts talking with someone who is both brilliant and apparently troubled, it’s a black ops mission under studio lights.

Essentially, he asked simple questions of Ms. Lohan; How many times have you been in rehab?  How will this time be different?  What are they rehabbing?  And on one hand, you could see she felt betrayed, at one point saying “We didn’t talk about this in the pre-interview”, as if to say, “You ambushed me.”

But on the other hand, think about it.  If you’re the handlers of Lindsey Lohan, you know very well what David Letterman is about and is capable of.  And if you’ve been dividing your time between keeping her working and keeping her out of the tabloid press, you might be looking for new ways to get her to change her behavior.

Who better to do that than Uncle Dave?  And when beautiful, big eyed Lindsey was faced with his brutal soft spoken-ness and a silent studio audience, you could see the ramifications of his questions and her answers ricocheting around in her mind like ball bearings from a Claymore Mine.  She cried.

“Now”, said Letterman, satisfied that he had cracked open her armor with his first wave of questions, asked more probing, more direct and personal questions.  “Do YOU have addiction problems?”  “Is it alcohol?”  “Do YOU drink too much?”

The job of the interviewer is to get in and get out.  David Letterman asked his questions and tied them up with a bow at the end by praising Lindsey Lohan for having the credibility to come before him.  See, everybody knew what could’ve happened, what was likely to happen, and it did.  It was no surprise to Letterman, and probably deep down, no surprise to Ms. Lohan.  But it probably was to the audience.  Her admission was a reveal to them.

But it was something for her too.  Lindsey Lohan has been on the Letterman Show five times in her career, and she’ll probably be on again.  Afterwards, she tweeted how much she enjoyed it.  Besides, look at their body language; they are mirroring each other and leaning toward each other. There seems to be mutual affection there. What Letterman has done, just like Oprah and Barbara Walters were also excellent at doing, was give somebody an opportunity to make penance.  When you think about it, it’s really a labor of love.  Interview and intervention share a common root.


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This was the name that was given to the person that listened in on the conversations of others without their knowledge.  As defined by Old English Law, an eavesdropper stood at the point near a house where water dripping from the roof of that house, called an eavesdrip, hit the ground.  I bring this up because interviews are often described as conversations that other people feel like they’re eavesdropping on.  Because, as the thinking goes, the most interesting conversations are the ones where the conversants don’t know they’re being listened to.  Presumably, that’s when you hear the “juciest” stuff.

I watched an interview with a celebrity recently, and although this isn’t true with all celebrities, it is more so than not that when a celebrity is hawking a movie or a book or a song, they tend to talk superficially.  They tend to recap stuff that is already public knowledge, unless it’s something that really is juicy that their lawyer or their publicist forbids them to talk about because it might affect books sales or movie attendance.  In those cases, the interview is pretty much a waste of time for all except the truest of devotees who are happy just seeing their face and hearing their voice no matter what they’re saying.

That’s not to say these celebrities don’t want to talk about their struggles.  But as an interviewer, I also get it that by the time a celebrity is on mass media or social media talking about something, they’ve probably repeated it dozens, maybe hundreds, of times.  In all probability, they’re absolutely sick of it.  So, maybe they only want to talk about their movie or book or song because their personal stuff in the public space has become an annoyance even to them. 

Plus, celebrities have to deal with people who want to be them, or hurt them or hate them, for no reason other than those people have nothing else in their lives.  So celebrities, who are essentially no different from you or me, oftentimes need to wall themselves off from most of us and any sincere revealing because they have a lot to lose, including their money, their privacy, their reputations, their legacies, and in some cases, their lives.   

For the most part, an interview is a business transaction between the outlet and the interviewer doing the interview and the celebrity and their organization providing the interview.  The newspaper, TV or radio outlet gets ratings in exchange for the celebrity that gets buyers or attendees.  But in those rare moments when a celebrity does risk sharing something true and universal about themselves, it is priceless because listeners and viewers realize that this rich, famous, beautiful person can be angry or afraid, joyful or sad, confused or withdrawn just like them.  That they’ve felt pain and loss.  And for those times when people aren’t sitting on the other side of the microphone or the TV screen smug with schadenfreude, they are grateful for the reminder that we are all human, striving, seeking love and wanting peace and joy.       

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February 14, 2013 at 23:22