Thursday, April 21, 2005

Too many toadies spoil the interview

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!


  1. That's eerie.... i had the exact same experience today; a million PR people mediating my interview with a world famous hair stylist (well...). they hyped him sooo much, called me several times to warn me how crabby and curt he was, asked if i really wanted to meet him... bowed deferentially when they asked him if he 'could' please speak to the press? Please, please?
    And then a bunch of them hovered nervously in between us through the whole thing. And was he scary? Crabby? Curt? No! Pulled a chair for me, cleaned it of the stray strands, chatted for 15 minutes, said he hoped he would meet me again and made for wonderful interview material.
    White man fixation i say!

  2. You know, interviews are seldom freewheeling exchanges of conversation and ideas. I always knew people I was talking to are always pushing their own agendas and are not really interested in frank talk, but I just discovered that they are almost always much less spontaneous than even I (the cynical hack) supposed them to be. Especially true if one is interviewing a representative of a big MNC or something. A friend who works for one such MNC told me recently how certain people in his company undergo media training workshops that teach them to push an agenda -- to tell just as much as the PR machinery has decided they should tell and even then prioritise. It was completely shocking. They are even taught how to make sure a certain point gets to be the headline -- and most often, they get it just right.

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  4. eh. fair enough, but we have a job to do too.
    and how would one deal with da boss on a bad mood day when he has to be gently reminded of things he is supposed to say, in the right order of course, to da nice boy from the pink papers.
    unless of course, you're particularly comfortable with half sentences.

  5. I freelanced for a southie paper a long time ago, and did an interview with a very well-known, charming writer who was visiting India. I guess I was much too young, and I immediately developed a painful crush on this man twice my age. And I believe he swung quite the other way. sigh.
    Well, I can access your blog, but haven't been able to access eM's from my office comp for the last week. *tugging hair out*