Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘truth

Speech, Official and Otherwise

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CEO Podium

For a minute, there was a little controversy brewing over the omission of a line in an official White House transcript.  In early June, the Obama White House was accused of omitting a statement from the official transcript about the Iran nuclear deal that was made by Press Secretary Josh Earnest.  But this is not the first time the official version of something has conflicted with the recorded version that was caught by the news media.  It also happened in 2005, when Congressional Quarterly and the Federal News Service said White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said something that McClellan said he didn’t.  In that case too, the recordings didn’t match the White House transcript.  And of course, the White House isn’t wrong, because its transcript is “official”.

These incidents ask a very interesting question; whom and what should be believed?

When an “official” presents an “official” statement, the idea is this is the “official” stance of his or her bosses all the way to the top.  It shouldn’t change since everyone downstream is expected to be in philosophical agreement.  And when that official statement comes from the White House, you’d think it’s golden since there aren’t a lot of people between the President’s press secretary and the President.

So when there is a difference of interpretation between who is saying so, it can throw the whole credibility thing into question.  In fact, just because someone is in an “official” position doesn’t necessarily mean they are telling the truth.  Upon leaving, many high ranking and respected authorities voice very different positions to those they held while they were still employed by those officials.

The most glaring example I can think of was the retirement of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.  He served two presidents of two parties, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.  And when he started talking, from between the pages of his book, about failures of leadership in the execution of the Iraq war, higher ups in the current and former administrations backed away and not, I suspect, because he wasn’t credible.  To his credit, retired Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos, retired Army First Infantry Brigade Commanding General John Batiste and more than 20 other retired officers also openly criticized the policies of the decade long conflict.

But the point isn’t the formers officers speaking out, or that the policy was worthy of being spoken out against or even that the generals were retired and outside the reach of their former bosses.  The point was that those were the people who best knew policy and politics, tactics, strategy, manpower and budget.  And yet, they lost their war because they identified the wrong enemy.  They weren’t disputing that military power must be subordinate to civil power.  But they were disputing civil power’s credibility to define reality.

Officials may haul out reams of numbers and reports to explain to a questioning public that something which seems simple, isn’t or something that was said, wasn’t.  It is, in part, the paternalism that pervades organizations with historically complex missions.  “We are the expert.  Look over here, not over there.  Sit back, be quiet and listen to Daddy.”  But one of the key functions of the best people deep within in those organizations is to take the complex and make it simple for those on the inside, because they like straight lines too.

The people who know an organization best may be the people inside it.  But it may also be the people who are willing to speak truth about it.  And those two aren’t always the same.

The Importance of the “Witness”

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Obama No

This is a quickie.

This photograph is currently circulating on Linkedin.  The poster is apparently suggesting that President Obama never hugged active duty troops, which in some circles is code for saying that President Obama has disdain for the troops, the American missions in Afghanistan/Iraq, American exceptionalism and the Constitution.  Many current and past political pundits, politicians and wannabees have said as much.

The interesting thing about this suggestion is it is flatly uninformed and untrue.  Photographer Erika Barker, who works for a communications firm in NY and has worked for Conde’ Nast, the NFL, DIRECTV among others, apparently happened to see the poster’s post and said, “I sure do. I was there”, and posted a photo of President Obama hugging troops.  In fact, Janet Goodman-Clarke, another marketing and photography professional in NY also posted a photo of the president hugging a soldier with prosthetic legs.  Who knows how many more photos invalidating the poster’s assertion are in that response thread.

Obama YesObama Yes2

An easy comeback might be, “Well, President Bush was sincerely hugging the troops while President Obama was doing it for the camera.”  And that is why easy responses are easy – because they don’t require much due diligence, which is why many such uninformed opinions flow so freely on social media.

It is the job of the Commander-in-Chief to command.  I cannot think of a president who has not cried for wounded or fallen troops.  It is a luxury for such posters to editorialize what is going on in the pictures.  The truth is the emotions exchanged between the leader and those they are leading are deep and personal and beyond shallow, petty and self interested interpretation.

But another true fact about such strong feelings by the people who have them is that the inaccuracy isn’t so much about the truth, but about how the people making the accusations don’t feel heard.  Much more must be done to try to find a way to heal what seems to be a genuine rift amongst our countrymen and women.  Feeling separated from the discussion can make people angry.  And when people are angry, they can see things that aren’t there and not see things that are there.

Which is exactly why the witness is so important.

Written by Interviewer

February 3, 2016 at 10:01

Yes or No

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Image

When citizens want to ask their legislator a question, the best way is to visit. If you can, just show up with your question in hand.  The face to face dynamics between legislator and citizen (or even legislative aide and citizen) leaves a lasting impression that carries all the way to the ballot box.  Because that old saw, “What people do and what they say matters a lot less than how they made you feel” is absolutely true and doesn’t lie. Of course you want a substantive and true answer, but you want sincerity too.

The next best way is to call.  It’s fast and it’s direct.  It can be intimidating because the bureaucracy of a government official and their staff can feel off putting.  But voice to voice really is the next best way to hear how you’re regarded.  We all know what being dismissed over the phone sounds like, and if you can call your representative and you don’t hang up with that feeling, that’s a great thing.

The next best way is email.  While there is no direct, person to person contact, you do have a record which is the advantage of a letter combined with the immediacy of a phone call.  Again, the tenor of the reply quickly shows how dedicated the office of your congressman or congresswoman is to constituent services.

The last best way is by letter.  There is no direct, person to person contact and there is no immediacy.  But a letter has a cachet’ that none of the other forms have.  Offices know that when someone sits down and takes the time to write a letter, this is probably someone who is not going to be easily placated by a quick answer.  This type of person has patience.  They do their homework and they can be a legislator’s worst nightmare if they don’t get a personal and comprehensive answer.

So what does this have to do with a simple yes or no?

The more direct the interaction, the fewer opportunities for others to erect barriers between you and the answer you’re seeking.

Bill Cosby has a great routine where, one of his kids breaks a lamp and he asks, “Who did it?” The kid responds “I don’t know”.  But since that kid was the only kid in the room, as Cosby says, “You know who did it”.  Many times, when people call their legislator looking for answers to questions, the best kind of question to ask is one where a simple yes or no is really the only reasonable response.  Parents and the partnered know the logic of this.  When confronting a loved one, all you want to know is what is the answer, yes or no.  And you know, if you get a fifteen minute answer to a two second question, there is probably a lie in there somewhere.

Many times, the responder will argue that the answer needs context.  That they need to make sure you understand the circumstances around what made them make the decision they made.  They sometimes say an issue is too complicated to give a yes or no answer.  But if your kid breaks a lamp, or you find a condom missing from the box of condoms in your partner’s nighttable, you don’t need an explanation of the financial fortunes of Pottery Barn or how the process of vulcanization works.  A simple yes or no will do.

So when a question pops into your mind, dear citizen, do not let yourself be swayed by delays or obfsucation.  As with interviews, make clear what you want to know before you make contact.  Listen to the answer you get and ask yourself, does that answer the question?  If not, come around again and this time, be prepared to strafe.

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.

Written by Interviewer

April 15, 2014 at 02:22

“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.