October 23, 2002
Survival of the Fittest (Mediawise, That Is)

Survival of the Fittest (Mediawise, That Is)

Adrian Hon writes:

In ten minutes, I'm going to be interviewed on a national Japanese radio station about First Words. It's been a while since I was last interviewed on the radio (BBC World Service) and that time wasn't live - this time I'll be live on air, plus it won't be from an English speaking country. I predict fun and foibles galore.

I'm a bit wary of live interviews - it's too easy to completely lose it, start talking gibberish and making stuff up; you'd better hope you're talking to a sympathetic DJ, or else you're in for a humiliation. I've done my homework though - I have several web browsers open with all the information I might need and I have large quantities of water standing by. Hopefully it'll all go well.

IMHO, the first lesson of taking part in a (short) live interview is to (a) write down the five points you want to make beforehand, (b) have them in front of you, and (c) take whatever question the interviewer asks and--after an initial phrase that sounds responsive--turn your answer to the question into whichever of your five points is most closely related to the question. That's the only way to consistently do well in live interviews. (If you know and trust the interviewer, however, you can have a real conversation instead.)

If you are taking part in a taped interview that then will be diced-and-spliced, the task is harder and requires great tolerance for boredom. The key is to leave no footage that can be used to show you confused, incoherent, or saying something that is not one of your major points. So what you need to do is to (a) take every question, (b) use it as a springboard to make one of your five points, and (c) keep replying with one of your five points no matter what the question is and no matter how many times you have made your five points before. Remember: the viewers won't see the conversation; there is no conversation; there is only the fiction of the conversation that the film editors and the director create. You have to make sure that the only usable footage of you, when they boil down the thirty minutes of film to the five minutes to be used, is of you making one or more of your five important points. (Once again, the rules are different if you know and trust the interviewer.)

Posted by DeLong at October 23, 2002 07:32 PM | Trackback

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"(a) take every question, (b) use it as a springboard to make
one of your five points, and (c) keep replying with one of your
five points no matter what the question is and no matter
how many times you have made your five points before."

This is just what politicians and everyone who's ever been on a "media training" course think is smart and IMHO it's a large contributor to the impression that interviewees are lying scumbags with something to hide who take their audience for fools. I suppose it's not so bad if you're interviewed in a private capacity but even then is the goal to sound like Ari Fleischer?

Posted by: Stephen Bryant on October 24, 2002 08:00 AM

Stephen Bryant's point would have more force if interviewers were interested in fairly presenting information rather than looking for gotchas that make the interviewee look bad.

Brad's advice simply recapitulates (Yes, Prime Minister's) Jim Hacker's advice to Bernard Wooley (who caused a lot of trouble when he answered a question honestly). As I recall, Jim said "When they ask a question you do not want to answer, say `that is not really the question; the real question is...' and put in the question you want to answer, with the answer you want to give."

Posted by: David Margolies on October 24, 2002 08:46 AM

>> You have to make sure that the only usable footage of you, when they boil down the thirty minutes of film to the five minutes to be used, is of you making one or more of your five important points.

I seem to recall a story about Menachim Begin being approached for an interview by 60 Minutes, and asking if he could see the edited version before it was aired. They said, "Of course not". Then he asked, "How long would this interview be on the air?" They said "About 15 minutes." He said, "Fine, I'll give you 15 minutes of my time."

It may be apocryphal, but it's an idea if the situation ever arises.

Posted by: Jim Glass on October 24, 2002 10:59 AM

I notice that some bloggers are actually putting transcripts on their weblots. I guess you could even make a tape and put up audio.

I believe the Metabolife people did this to one of the networks a couple of years ago.

Posted by: Glenn Reynolds on October 24, 2002 12:27 PM

To agree to an edited interview is to agree to have one's ideas distorted beyond recognition. Unfortunately, the tactic of "staying on message", regardless of the question, makes one appear to be weasally drone. Perhaps the answer is to only accept live interviews with legitimately skilled interviewers who are not axe-grinders themselves. Of course, very few interviewers meet this standard, and this tactic assumes that the interviewee is NOT simply a weasally drone.

Posted by: Will Allen on October 24, 2002 01:12 PM

I'll only affirm the first step of what Glenn recommends. Always, always, always make your own tape of the interview in full view and fully disclosed to the interviewer, whether it is print, radio, or video.

Posted by: Dave Roberts on October 24, 2002 01:30 PM

An interview isn't a conversation, it's a transaction. The reporter gets material for a story or an interesting guest for a broadcast or whatever and the interviewee gets a platform for a message.

It only makes sense to use this platform as effectively as possible. That means staying on message, effortlessly if possible, relentlessly if necessary.

Posted by: Ron Stack on October 24, 2002 01:43 PM

I suppose you could offer to talk to the interviewer off-record at length, and then give him/her five minutes of your five points live.

Posted by: Rob Mahnke on October 24, 2002 03:34 PM

I'm on the other side of Hon's experience: I interview people all the time. (Currently on my audio site are interviews with Jesse Ventura, Douglas Adams and Terry Brooks, among others. www.romm.org/audio ).

He's right that live interviews are different than taped interviews. I prefer live interviews because they're easier to do: I can alter the flow if a person goes off topic or play a piece of music if they run out of things to say.

I prefer taped interviews because I have a lot of tape. I can go on as long as the interviewee cares to give me time, and edit as necessary. Now, I'm not a news outlet and I'm not looking for a soundbite. Indeed, I'm looking for a 25 minute show. The Brooks interview, conducted a month ago about his latest book, is just under 34 minutes on tape. For the web, I left it all in, with very minor edits for mic noise and the very end. I tried to make an air edit, but couldn't get it down past 29:58 without cutting something I thought interesting.

Sound bites are nice. Quotable comments are nice. But I bemoan the shortening of the American attention span that can't spend a few minutes listening to someone ramble on, circling around the main point without being pithy or terse. Jack Paar would never succeed today.

Perhaps that explains the rise of blogs: They are places where people can ramble.

Posted by: Dave Romm on October 24, 2002 07:40 PM

The resemblance is uncanny. I think the President (Bush) also uses this technique...not very well but he uses it. He dodges questions by talking about something else....I have a ball listening to his "answers."

Posted by: Christie on July 15, 2003 09:55 PM

The resemblance is uncanny. I think the President (Bush) also uses this technique...not very well but he uses it. He dodges questions by talking about something else....I have a ball listening to his "answers."

Posted by: Christie on July 15, 2003 09:55 PM

The resemblance to Hacker's advice is uncanny. I think the President (Bush) also uses this technique...not very well but he uses it. He dodges questions by talking about something else....I have a ball listening to his "answers."

Posted by: Christie on July 15, 2003 09:56 PM

The resemblance to Hacker's advice is uncanny. I think the President (Bush) also uses this technique...not very well but he uses it. He dodges questions by talking about something else....I have a ball listening to his "answers."

Posted by: Christie on July 15, 2003 09:58 PM
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