A couple of days ago I interviewed the foreign head of a TV channel with operations in India. It was a casual chat - didn’t take long, 15 or 20 minutes - and there was a relaxed exchanging of Qs and As, even some small talk. It went well.
I’m not on the TV beat or anything, but it so happened that I’d met the same chappie on his previous visit to India too, around a year and a half ago. On that occasion the interview was a nightmare: I couldn’t get the questions out right, felt certain I was asking stupid/obvious things (which added to the underconfidence), felt inadequate and hopeless; and at the end of it all I didn’t have anything resembling a story.
So what was the difference between the two occasions? Well, this time the interview was a one-on-one. The surroundings were casual, it was just the two of us chatting, there was nothing more intrusive than a company representative keeping tabs on us discreetly from a distance, presumably to make sure I didn’t poke his boss in the eye or something. But on the last occasion, we had been sitting in a conference room, a set-up meant to emphasise the fact that this was a formal meet...and present in the room along with the two of us were six others, mainly PR people of different shapes and hues. They just sat there and watched, scribbled their own notes intently, occasionally even interrupted when one of them imagined there was a communication gap between the interviewee and myself. The result, like I said before, was disastrous. I had a similarly bad experience interviewing a watch company CEO in Basel a couple of weeks ago.
The reason a simple interview sometimes turns into a wedding party is that there are many levels of intermediaries between interviewer and subject. At the most basic level, there will be a person from the PR agency representing the company/individual. If it’s a biggish company, there will be the internal corporate communication department to contend with too. Then there’s the matter of PR agencies using interviews as training grounds for their junior employees, so that there’ll always be at least one earnest-faced creature resembling Asok the Intern in the Dilbert strip.
It becomes far worse when you’re interviewing the head of a foreign company with a franchisee/branch in India, because then the number of intermediaries gets automatically doubled. Plus the “gora aadmi” complex ensures that the Indian PR people will be present in full strength, so they can be seen collecting each pearl that drips from the great man’s mouth and preserving them for eternity in their notebooks.
I’m amazed how people manage to work in public relations or corporate communication for years at a stretch without understanding that interviewing has to be an intimate process, most effective when a comfort level is allowed to be established. Any interview - even the most casual one, where the questioner and the subject know each other very well - has an element of artifice, of role-playing, built into it. It’s an unnatural concept to begin with, and the last thing that’s required is to contrive to make it even more awkward for both parties. Even CEOs, celebrities - people who you’d imagine are accustomed to hangers-on bowing and scraping about them - even they open up a lot more when there’s a one-on-one conversation that acquires a rhythm. Unless the subject is terribly reclusive or insecure or in a nasty mood or suffering from laryngitis or V S Naipaul without Lady Nadira, there’s always a better chance of finding common ground this way.
Which is one of the reasons doing author interviews is generally such a pleasure - they are almost always just two-person affairs. The promotions people in publishing houses seem to understand the need for privacy much better than their brethren elsewhere. Or - dare I be cynical about this? - maybe they just stay away because they aren’t interested in hearing people talk about books!