Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Silence

Extruded Answer

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Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace was talking to Jeff Selingo, author of the book, “There is Life after College“.  He responded to a comment Mr. Selingo made about how, instead of recruiting seniors, businesses are now looking at sophmores so they can “try them out before they buy them.”

“That’s a little harsh”, Mr. Ryssdal responded.  And then, three seconds of silence which, in radio, is a least one and a half forevers.

You could feel Mr. Selingo being pulled through the tiny hole Mr. Ryssdal had formed around his incredulity over how colleges are being ruthlessly business-like.  Eventually, almost reluctantly it seemed, he replied.  This led me to two observations;

1.  I thought Marketplace was a business program that stared clear and cold eyed at business realities.  This surprises you, really?

2.  Again, the crushing weight of radio silence bent another human to its will.

I’ve talked about the host pause before, so no need to dwell on it here except to say, man, does it work.



Written by Interviewer

April 20, 2016 at 05:48


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This is a quickie.

Sometimes, an interviewer will introduce a guest or a number of guests with the expectation that after he finishes the introduction, the guests will acknowledge the introduction by saying something like how glad they are to be there or how grateful they are to have to opportunity to talk.  It’s the official go ahead to the host that the interview can commence.

But sometimes that doesn’t happen.  Sometimes there is dead silence from everybody.  Then, the host is stuck in that wierd little moment between waiting for the guest(s) to acknowledge the introduction and deciding to plow forward without it.

That happened today with Dave Miller, the host of the Oregon Public Broadcasting noontime radio news program “Think Outloud”.  Following a long and flowing introduction of three people who were on the program to speak of their history with former Oregon Republican Governor Vic Atiyeh who had just been honored in a memorial service, none of them said anything.  After a couple seconds, he moved on but you could tell he was caught a little off guard.  After all, you might expect one person out of three to not say anything.  But three out of three?

As an interviewer, you always wonder when that happens why that happens.  It’s sort of a social convention – equivalent to saying thank you when someone holds open a door.  When the convention gets broken, it can be a surprise.  And the dynamics can be a little hard to understand.  Maybe the longer any guest doesn’t hear any other guest speak first, the longer none of them choose to speak first.  Maybe they consider the nicety superflurous and so they don’t participate in it.  Maybe they didn’t hear the introduction or weren’t paying attention to it.  Or maybe they just want to punk the host.  All have happened to me.  Who knows?

But interviewers, journalist, reporters; anyone who publicly  engages the public knows that expecting people to behave a certain way is risky.  You want to give them their respect and make room for cordiality.  When it doesn’t come though, you can’t blink.  You just think to yourself, “Well, it is what it is” and just keep going.

Written by Interviewer

September 4, 2014 at 02:33

Are You There?

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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