Interview tips for ships that pass in the night

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.

These words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow popped into my mind this week, as I read an internal email from The Economist‘s “brand communications manager” that landed in my inbox. It began:

As more and more of you are doing broadcast interviews now, I thought it might be useful to re-circulate these hints and tips…

I have indeed, over the past 14 years, been doing more and more broadcast interviews, and made more than my share of mistakes. So I began perusing these tips with an open mind. Many were about the mechanics (wear plain shirts on TV, no patterns, no black; don’t fiddle with your hands; etc). But the important ones were about content. And, as I kept reading, I grew somewhat pensive.

That’s because, as I see it, the tips were simultaneously

  1. good — ie, anybody doing media interviews is well advised to heed them — and
  2. awful — ie, heeding them is what makes our political, public and personal conversations increasingly pointless and frustrating.
I shall explain, in two parts:

1) The tips

I was slightly suspicious of the Powerpoint-style pseudo-acronyms (this email came from the “business side”, after all), but could not argue with the advice:

Prepare beforehand – decide what it is you really want to get across, having stats to hand will usually be useful. Know your:

  • Audience
  • Messages (focus on three key things to say)
  • Evidence (third party endorsement is good e.g. quotes or research)
  • Negatives (what’s the “worst” question they could ask?)

(AMEN, get it? Oh dear.)


Get in early with your messages/evidence – don’t wait for the perfect question, it may never come

Translation: Ignore the question, just say whatever the heck you want to say, which is probably whatever you said in your last article in The Economist.

More tips:

Avoid being question-led so the interviewer gets a neat segment that fits their preconceptions but you don’t get to say anything really interesting or useful.

Add value. Don’t feel forced to answer a question at length that you feel is unclear or irrelevant. You are the expert, talk about what you think is most significant.

If you are asked a difficult question:

1. Acknowledge it (“I understand that view…” / “we need to look at this issue in the light of..”)

2. Bridge back and communicate what you want to say.

3. Don’t repeat any negative language – if the audience is only half-listening, that’s all they will hear.

4. Don’t fake it if you don’t know, bring the conversation back to where you feel comfortable.

Translation: In case you didn’t get the first translation, ignore the question (but be suave about it) and say whatever the heck you want to say….

2) The consequences

I did say, right up front, that I had contradictory reactions to this advice. I know too well how utterly demoralizing it is to be on the radio or on TV, and to go off on that tangent that might become so very sophisticated in just a few minutes but dies suddenly and ignominiously when the interview is … over.

‘Wait, you mean, you don’t want to hear all my complex thoughts on this issue?’

No, they don’t.

If you don’t seize the conversation, they, or it, will seize you.

On the other hand, what kind of “conversations” are we talking about?

The worst kind: the eristic kind, as Socrates would say, the kind that obstructs communication and discovery of truth.

And so we all — journalists, politicians, consultants, pundits — become “media-trained”, talking right past one another, just like ships that pass in the night.

33 thoughts on “Interview tips for ships that pass in the night

  1. I agree. The practical tips are excellent but the points you list under “More tips” do show a sad state of discourse. Also very timely post given that the election campaigns are in full swing–you could turn this list of tips into a scorecard so we can rate the candidates on how well they are “performing.”

  2. I get your translations of the tips and agree with you as to the effect they have on conversations. They lead to a sad state of discourse, as Thomas says.

    It was the point I was trying to make by posting that “no one ever really debates” on blogs which is why I enjoy a more conversational tone.

    Also, if the blogger wishes to make a point on a contentious subject, they might do well to use these tips and push the conversational aspect right over the edge. (my obscure neitzche reference)

    I hope that this reply did not simply “bridge back” :0 – but actually addresses the point.

    • that’s o.k.,

      i have trouble understanding myself 🙂

      Nietzsche didn’t say anything about your interview “tips” but since they lead to an obstruction of communication you may wish to “push them” aside and simply make your point flat out since you are dealing with a failed system of communication.

      I am referring to “that which is falling should also be pushed”. hope i haven’t stretched the metaphor too far. (i am aware of it’s original context)

  3. on second thought, wordsworth’s poem implies a form of communication, although ephemeral yet still beautiful?

    the “tips” describe more a recipe for dystopia?

    • Well, right there you’ve put your finger on my general problem with poetry, dafna.

      My problem is: It could always mean anything. Anything at all. And I’m guaranteed to read a “wrong” meaning into it, and then connoisseurs — Jenny, for sure — would have to educate me publicly.

      So, wait: the ships that pass in the night, above — are those words about something mysterious and beautiful, or about something sad and lonely and disconnected?

    • the excerpt is from longfellow’s Tales of a Wayside Inn

      the words are mysterious and beautiful, a profession of love between John and Elizabeth Estaugh.

      i believe the excerpt is meant to mean, like Mr. C’s story, that there is no guarantee we will connect which can be sad and lonely but the the beautiful part is when we do connect.

  4. When I saw the name, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, I felt myself pulled down a time-tunnel to when I was seven or eight (or was it nine?). I had been dragooned into a junior-school choir that was required to sing for a concert, Longfellow’s poem, “The Windmill”, that had been set to music. Hence I can still remember, almost sixty years on, most of this poem, the opening lines of which are:

    Behold a giant am I
    Aloft here in my tower,
    With my granite jaws I devour
    The maize, and the wheat, and the rye,
    And grind them into flour……..

    I still even remember how the song went. I’ve just Googled the poem. Amazingly (or perhaps not so amazingly) I found it *here*. It’s worth a look.

    What has any of this to do with how to do a good interview? Nothing at all. This comment is merely another eristic ship in the night, to be swallowed in the darkness and silence………

    • Well, further to my reply to dafna above, I like this poem, for I can actually understand it. Or at least, I think I understand it.
      As in painting and sculpture, the older the art, the easier it is to understand, IMHO. The more “modern”, the more at sea I am.

    • If artists lead (and I think they do), doesn’t it make sense that we appreciate older works of art, but feel at sea with the modern stuff? We just have to “learn to labor and to wait” as your featured poet said in A Psalm of Life.

      Andreas, you are often on the other end of the interviewing equation, right? What does the “brand communications manager” (That’s a job title for our times!) advise then? Or, is that the business of some other manager? Or is it assumed that you know how to do that?

      All this reminds me of the comedian who bought a humidifier and a dehumidifier, set them up in the basement, and let them fight it out.

      Branding! What a funny name. Takes me right back to Longfellow’s psalm:

      In the world’s broad field of battle,
      In the bivouac of Life,
      Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
      Be a hero in the strife!

    • When I’m on the other side, as I usually am, I try to prevent exactly the kind of “interview” that my “brand communications manager” is attempting to train me for. When that’s not possible — ie, when my conversation partners just regurgitate their Powerpoint bullets — I usually lose interest and exit the interview as gracefully as I can. For a print journalist, a lot is in how you choose your conversation partners in the first place. Remember, that’s the difference: Most of my conversations are not for show; they’re for my edification, so that I can then produce words. I can walk away from bullshit. An enormous advantage.

  5. There is memorable Saturday Night Live skit with Dan Akroyd and Gilda Radner. Dan is a mechanic home from work, tired. Gilda is a little girl (the interviewer).

    Mother: [to father] Hey, sweetheart, I have to go to pottery class and catch up on my glazing. Will you put Debbie to bed?

    Father: Yeah, okay.

    Mother: Oh, thanks. [to Debbie] Goodbye, sweetie.

    Debbie: Bye, Mom.

    Father: Take the wagon, okay, honey?

    Mother: Okay.

    [Mother exits as father, groaning and stretching his tired limbs, collapses onto the sofa.]

    Debbie: [enthusiastically joins father on the sofa] Daddy! Could – could you tell me a story before I go to bed?

    Father: [wearily dismissive] I don’t know any stories, Debbie. Go on to bed now.

    Debbie: Couldn’t you tell me a story about your work?

    Father: There’s nothing at the garage that would interest a little girl. Now, go on to bed, okay? [lights a cigarette]

    Debbie: No, Daddy, couldn’t you please tell me a story?! I won’t be able to fall asleep! Oh, PLEASE! Oh, PLEASE!

    Father: [exasperated] Okay! All right, I got a story for ya. [Debbie listens raptly as her father describes his work as if it were a children’s story] Once upon a time, a guy comes into the shop with a small block Chevy 6. I take a look at it. I say, I know there’s some tappet knocking here so I pull the valve cover off, I strip the gasket, and I’m all set to tighten down the rocker arms, and there’s a whole lot o’ oil–

    Debbie: Daddy, was there a bear?

    Father: No, but a guy was as mad as a bear when I told him he was lookin’ at a ring job. You know, it’s expensive. So he said he didn’t know, so I started pullin’ the differential out of the tow truck–

    Debbie: Was there a tiny dwarf?

    Father: Yeah. Yeah, there was a dwarf, right in the hub. So I chased him with a hammer all the way down the axle and I pulled the hub off and it turned out it was just a wheel bearing and not the pinion gear like–

    Debbie: And – and – and did ya find any magic beans?

    Father: Yeah. Well, there was this one guy, said he’d give me three hundred and twenty-two magic beans if I’d, uh, open his ports a bit, uh, blow the engine out to forty thousand over and, uh, bolt on a set o’ headers.

    Debbie: Was there a witch?

    Father: I used the winch to drop a three eighteen into the old Dodge pick-up, yeah.

    Debbie: And did the – did the princess find the frog?

    Father: No, but I did — right in the starter drive. Right between the Bendix spring and the armature. So I pulled out the armature, replaced all the brushes and it run–

    Debbie: Did Bambi come out of the forest?

    Father: Bambi? Yeah, Bambi came out of the forest, this guy was goin’ about sixty — WHAMMO! — his radiator, the grill, gone! I had to put it right in. You know how hard it is to replace a radiator on a ’63 Chevy? Ya gotta–

    Debbie: Did they all get married and live happily ever after?

    Father: Well, this guy was married and the bill wasn’t too bad. Now go to bed, will ya please?

    Debbie: Okay.

    [Debbie kisses her father, scurries toward the stairs but stops and turns.]

    Debbie: Daddy?

    Father: What do you want now?

    Debbie: If you put on new tie rods and king pins, do you have to do a complete wheel alignment?

    Father: Yeah, ya do, usually, yeah.

    [Satisfied, Debbie runs upstairs. Father does a delayed double take, amazed that there was something at the garage that would interest a little girl …]

    • 🙂
      So I take back my reply to Philippe, about “the older the art, the easier it is to understand”. This, clearly, is modern poetry, and easy to understand.
      But note: most poets would not count it as poetry.

    • Debbie grows up to be Mona Lisa Vito in MY COUSIN VINNY, talking torque and tire marks and trannies.

      And, now, with Gilda Radner and Marisa Tomei linked in my mind, I’m going to work happy.

    • Well, that’s the real tragedy in all this, Good Greatsby. Homo sapiens is not good at “segmenting” one social context from another indefinitely. We do let these habits infect our private and even intimate conversations. Meaning: we stop listening to one another.

  6. Longfellow is a great choice for anyone who struggles with poetry.

    “The Day is Done” is a lovely poem for children (of all ages).

  7. Dodging questions is the loudest, most conspicuous, and most unflattering behavior an interviewee can engage in. It’s really the pits. Sirens and alarm bells go off the moment someone, no matter how subtly, starts answering a question ever so slightly different than the one that was actually asked.

    Whoever actually trains (!) people to do that should be shot, for either the person so trained looks like they didn’t understand the question, or, worse, they’re afraid of it. Why would anyone undergo media training so they’ll come across as either a dingbat or a pantywaist?

    If you’re doing an interview, you must either (a) answer the exact question you were asked or (b) state point-blank that you refuse to answer it and explain why. Once you’ve done either, you can talk about whatever you want until the interviewer cuts you off.

    Otherwise, anything you haven’t answered will drown out the rest of the interview in the minds of the audience.


    • I’m with Cyberquill here. Even if the “point” you go on to make is “more important” than the question, something in me gets turned off when one willfully ignores what was asked. Of course, most of the time the person’s answer is actually less important. Politicians use this technique to avoid saying anything.

      What I don’t understand is that this technique apparently works for politicians. The audience, us, are truly to blame for this.

    • I agree with both of you. And there we are, youthful heroes again, uncompromising like strapping Achilles.

      No, you noticed something else in my post: I savor my contradictions. Here is the problem: Go and DO some of these interviews, and fail miserably because you allowed the interviewer to toy with you.

      You will then come back to this post and say, hey, next time I’ll try these tips.

      A sell-out is just a hero who’s already tried it.

    • “Fail” according to what definition of failure? I’ve seen tons of interviews in my life, and any mismatch between a question asked and the answer given puts the person interviewed in a bad light every single time. Either they look like they didn’t quite get the question, that they’re afraid of it (for whatever reason), or that they’re desperate to sell something. Not exactly the kinds of impressions you want to leave with an audience. The last thing on earth you want to look like—I hope—is like a politician on the campaign trail, but that’s exactly what you’ll look like. the instant you start dodging and ignoring questions rather than confronting them head-on. The habit of dodging questions in order to get to rattling off prepared talking points is simply too ubiquitous in our day and age to not instantly invoke the image of a politician on the campaign trail.

      Also keep in mind that a particularly insidious way of toying with an interviewee is to ask questions he or she is expected to dodge in order to regale the audience with the ensuing tap dance around those very questions. The interviewee may feel he or she is “controlling” the interview while in reality being played like a fiddle by the wily interrogator.

    • Ok, just to contradict myself – since that’s what Andreas encourages here. I understand the motive behind ignoring the question in a nonpolitical context. For politicians, screw them, they’re being vapid on purpose (although, again, it’s really our fault). But for experts, the interviewer may often be a twit that doesn’t know what he should be asking. How often do you see your favorite expert (do other people have these?) on a show and get frustrated because he or she is being driven over the cliff of inanity only to have the interview crash with a sudden and premature end?

      It’s not like experts get a lot of valuable air time in our media. I can emphasize with wanting to say something questions be damned.

    • We all understand the motive behind ignoring questions, i.e., the frustration that comes with being asked something other than whatever it may be that one wishes to answer. I just fail to see the PR value in coming across as coached, impatient, and frustrated, which is the inevitable result of the “questions be damned” approach to giving interviews. After all, you don’t necessarily want to underscore your or your publicist’s bad instincts when it comes to selecting forums to be interviewed in.

  8. A sell-out is a just a hero who’s already tried it? C’mon! That’s too cynical.

    You can use these tips without selling out to them.

    A grown-up is a hero who’s already tried it.

  9. sorry guys,

    i’m with the big A on this one. when in high school we were asked to write an easy. whether it was nobler to die in a blaze of glory or retreat and live to fight another day.

    my thesis was that it was nobler to live humbly for a cause, take what you have learned and live to fight another day.

    billy joel sings about this in “angry young man”.

    may the midwest be safe this week-end.

  10. It is delightful but hardly surprising that this post has led to a thoughtful conversation regarding discourse, meaning, and art. However since the average TV audience is rather different from a reading audience or a listening audience, I think you might have overshot the point by dismissively glossing over the mechanical tips.

    I’ve been on TV before and, looking back at the dismal results, I now know the real trick there is to look good. Nobody actually listens to the boob tube anyway.

    • Well, yes, that’s probably true. I was thinking that yesterday while “live-blogging” the GOP debate. Perry looks good in his suit. That’s all that a lot of people will be noticing or remembering.

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