An alternate taxonomy of the interview

Taxonomic trees are an interesting way to think about the relationships between things. Here’s a rough one to explain what I’m talking about.

I recently participated in a workshop for scientists about talking to the media, led by Nancy Baron, who has written a smart book on the subject.

It got me thinking about how mysterious the media can be for people who haven’t interacted with us much. One thing we don’t always make clear to people is just what kind of interview we’re asking for. Which can make a difference in how someone will prepare, and what they can expect to come of it.

The most obvious taxonomy of an interview is by media line: print, radio, TV. And that has merit. It can help you decide, for example, whether to put on a tie, or brush your hair. It will also determine whether an interview over the phone might be enough (print, radio) or likely won’t be (TV).

But, here’s another way of looking at it.

Conversation vs. quote

After the split between print and broadcast, I think the next most important difference is not between TV and radio, but between two types of broadcast interviews: the conversation vs. the quote. [Note, these are my labels, not standard industry labels. They're both called interviews, but I'm trying to make a distinction.]

The biggest difference for the interviewee is how quickly and clearly they need to make their point(s).

Conversation

In the conversation, where the interview airs as an interview (either live, live-to-tape, or edited down) people will hear more of what you have to say. A typical current-affairs interview one of CBC Radio’s local shows (e.g. The Early Edition) is 5 minutes. So, there is room for a (short) anecdote, and you could take a minute to make a point.

Quote

Compare that to an interview that will lead to quotes (or clips) in a broadcast news piece. A typical clip in a news story is 10-20 seconds, maybe shorter. This is generally with a reporter, rather than with a host of a show.

You can (and should) still explain a lot more to the reporter than the short, pithy, “here’s the bottom line” quotes. I’ll usually talk to someone for 10 minutes or more, and that information is not lost, it helps me decide what the story is (or isn’t). But in the end, I’ll still be looking for short quotes that make the person’s point clearly.

Interestingly, during this second “quoted” type of interview, even though you have to make your point succinctly, you may actually have more time get there. Five minutes on live radio fly by. But you could talk to a news reporter for longer, and come up with the perfect, smart, pithy quote at minute ten (something you never would have gotten to on air).

A few of other nuance differences…

  • The advice some people get to address the person interviewing you by name (“Well, Lisa, you see, Lisa…”) should really not be followed if it’s an interview for quotes. This will render clips unusable. Even in a conversation interview, some hosts hate it because it doesn’t sound authentic.
  • In an interview for quotes, it’s helpful when people answer in complete sentences, because the audience won’t hear the question.

    Q: Where did you do your field work?”

    A: “We did our field work on Haida Gwaii.” (Not just “Haida Gwaii.”)

    This advice can be dangerous, though, when it leaves people concentrating so hard on speaking in sentences they ploddingly repeat the phrasing of each question (e.g. “Where we did our field was on Haida Gwaii.”)

  • In a pre-recorded interview, especially one for quotes, you’ll often be asked whether there’s anything else you want to say but we didn’t get to. I do this every time. But, it will never happen in a live interview.

All this to say, it’s useful to consider where the interview will end up. And either way, you need a clear idea of what you want to say.

What do you think it’s important to know before going into an interview?

[There is a big caveat to all of this. The new answer to "Where will this interview be used?" is "Everywhere." I pull audio from TV interviews for radio news, TV and radio scripts are used for CBC.ca's online pieces, print reporters carry small video cameras, some of our radio shows are videotaped, and some of our interviews that would before only have been clipped for news are now posted online in their entirety.]

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