I watched a documentary the other day called Inside Job. It is an exemplary account of the before, during and after of the global financial crisis. Now, generally the key points of a film are often unclear to me even though everyone else gets them. But in this case, there was no exception.
I mean I did find the rampant irresponsibility and greed of the investment banks both sickening and, perversely, a little alluring. And the lack of accountability that followed the whole crisis only served to heighten my outrage and also make the whole gambit a little more attractive (I think it was the sexy music they decided to play over the top of all the bankers’ misdeeds, after all Trent Reznor’s rendition of ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ in the Social Network made me want to be one of the clueless Winklevoss twins).
But what truly shocked me wasn’t the vulgar, rapacious dark side of capitalism on display. It wasn’t the thought of millions of Americans left homeless thanks to predatory lenders preying on the delusional beliefs and naïve hopes that the American dream can still be made reality.
No, what shocked me was the tone of the questions being asked by the filmmaker. Man that guy was tough, check out his dealing with Glenn Hubbard the dean of Columbia Business School.
This got me thinking about my own experiences giving interviews.
Lynn Barber, an illustrious British profile writer, once stated that an interviewer should start ‘from a position of really disliking people and then compel them to win you over.’ Now, I am known to be a bit of a maverick, I don’t like “rules”. This rebellious streak means that when I give an interview I don’t follow Ms. Barber’s roo-ewls. No, I take the reverse approach.
I start from the point of the subject probably disliking me or, at least, wondering what I am doing in their office and, from there, I proceed to try and convince them to like me.
The first interview I gave was for my University student newspaper, my subject was a Professor of Middle Eastern Politics and the topic was President Obama and the Middle East. I sat across from him, my sweaty hand, clutching a crumpled sheet of paper, shook so violently that I could barely read my questions. I was, after all, voted ‘Most likely to be nervous and have clammy palms’ by my graduating class at high school.
Using my right hand to still my left one I asked my first question, which was something to the effect of ‘what does Obama’s election mean for the Middle East.’ As this question demonstrates, I think the key is to have concise and precise questions prepared.
The professor, an Iranian émigré, responded: “well, that’s a big question”. For some reason I thought this was a joke and honked out an exaggerated laugh that sounded like yelping, “you’re so right! It is a big question, you are killing me!” Wiping a tear from my eye I noticed that he hadn’t even cracked a smile.
The interview proceeded with awkward questions accompanied by my really emphatic head nodding and sycophantic murmurs of, ‘So true. Totally. Hmm interesting’ etc.
At one point the professor’s phone started vibrating on the little table in between us. We both glanced at it and I, not wanting to put my subject out at all, said ‘you can answer that if you want.’ He politely declined.
After twenty minutes the interview had wrapped up and as I was being gently ushered out the door I expressed my thanks and apologies in equal measure. I may not have got the subject to like me but I am pretty sure he felt sorry for me. This I consider a partial success.
So let me tell you Ms. Barber that while you may have mastered the hard-hitting style of interview, I have created my own, tepid style. The key is to approach the interview with doe-eyes, a honey mouth, and a hand full of soft balls (soft ball questions, that is).
Take my advice and uninteresting articles and documentaries are sure to follow. That is my guarantee.
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