Q & A

08 Oct 2004|Darrel Rhea

The recent political “debates” are important nationally and globally, but aren’t really debates. With the participants – Kerry, Bush, Cheney and Edwards – more often addressing issues lined up by a moderator than directly sparring with each other, I’d characterize them as more a form of interview. (Click for a full transcript and thought-provoking commentary on the first Presidential debate.)

It’s clear that of the four, the interviewees with the most to lose are the least revealing. Incumbents Bush and Cheney demonstrated themselves to be well-prepped, staying on messaging consistently. But, their “answers,” even when sprinkled with new statistics, didn’t enlighten listeners beyond the rhetoric we have been reading in the press for many months. Politically, it was probably a good strategy for them…though didn’t result in exciting debates or even very good interviews.

There are a number of basic types of interviews: journalistic, research, job, and political. No matter which type it is, the basic goal of an interview is to mine for information. Probably what makes each of the types so different is the ultimate desired outcome for that information. Political: explain the candidate’s position on issues of interest to the voting public. Journalistic: entertain, and sell the publication (whatever medium). Job: hire or be hired. Research: solve a problem.

In every case, the interview is as only good as the interviewer. (Garbage asked, garbage answered.) What makes a good interviewer? Someone who is almost over-prepared and therefore deeply knowledgeable about the subject already; who is consistent and disciplined enough to keep the conversation on track no matter how distracted or much of an agenda the interviewee may have; who is a good listener and takes in new information rather than hearing only what is expected; who is flexible enough to dance in the conversation and allow those interesting digressions (momentarily). Afterward, there are key elements to being a good interviewer that have to do with the ability to compile, analyze and edit the information in a meaningful way for the audience. [For more info on journalistic interviews, see Larry Grobel’s site. ] In the case of the political debate-interviews, it’s too bad that the interviewers weren’t a larger part of the post-game show, contributing their insights to the analysis.

This is one of the approaches that makes research interviewing invaluable (as long as the interviewer meets the above criteria). While sometimes Cheskin’s clients don’t think about what goes into the research we do as a basis for our consulting, each component described here is critical to results that solve key problems. After 25 years of interviewing a range of people that include some of the most influential people in the world to the most common, I still have a passion for delving into the minds of others. Parts I love include surprise revelations that open up the mother lodes of information, and the sorting of patterns during the analysis afterward. Would I have been better than Lehrer during the political debates? I doubt it. It would have been an enormously fun challenge, but interviewing the top political figures of the country would be an incredibly delicate balancing act between mining for insightful revelations and allowing the alpha dogs to look good.

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