If you want to learn from mistakes in how to handle an interview, you could take a lesson from Jimmy Carter, Henry Kissinger, Edward Kennedy, and Alexander Haig. The three public figures all had celebrated careers. But each also had one moment when they badly flubbed an interview.
Jimmy Carter admitted to Playboy he had lusted in his heart, the equivalent in his mind to adultery. Henry Kissinger was skewered by rapier-like interviewer Oriana Fallaci, comparing himself to the mythical, romantic American cowboy. Edward Kennedy was stumped when CBS congressional correspondent Roger Mudd asked a softball question: Why did he want to be president? And U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig, in the moments after President Ronald Reagan had been shot, rushed into the press room to attempt to calm the waters by announcing, “As of now, I am in control here.”
Those are some of the communications disasters that Bodine Williams – a former NBC, CTV and Global reporter turned Toronto-based communications consultant – gathers in her book Game Face. For each (and the other 15 selections) she combines a description of the encounter with a lesson that government executives could use. And beyond that, she includes more specific tips beyond that overall prescription, many you may know but enough that you probably don’t to make the book worthwhile.
The lesson to draw from Jimmy Carter: Interviews are not time for original thinking. “An interview is a time for facts, arguments, and considered opinion. It is not the occasion for out-of-the box thinking on any subject. Nor is it the time to deal with hypothetical questions – or anything else you have not thought of before,” she advises.
Carter, then a presidential candidate, had provoked concerns about the influence his strong religious beliefs might have on him. The interview was actually over but at the door Carter was asked one parting question, which the journalist asking viewed as casual, whether in the interview the candidate had reassured people about his religious ties. As he answered, the journalists indicated they were recording, so he knew he was talking to Playboy’s
readers. And as he talked about pride and lust, he was about to make headlines.
Williams counsels to not assume the interview is over because the reporter closes his notebook or turns off his recorder. Interviewees get in trouble making comments they think are off the record while standing at the elevator, at the door, or even in the washroom perhaps because they are so relieved their ordeal is over they let their guard down. “But the interview is never over for the journalists while you are in their sights,” she warns.
Carter was hurt by his mouth and mind, not the tape recorder capturing his words. She advises you to allow tape recorders if reporters request one, since it offers more accurate note-taking. “There is nothing sinister about this. It underscores the need for interview subjects to stay on the point,” she says. Don’t waste time thinking of everything you could be asked. Prepare for the first half-dozen most difficult interview questions and then the six most obvious. And in your responses, she urges you to “resist a show of vanity of one-upmanship,” which was Carter’s other sin.
Vanity also did Kissinger in. He rarely gave interviews and had a horrendously busy schedule. Indeed, he later said that he agreed to the request from Fallaci “largely out of vanity. She had interviewed leading personalities all over the world. Fame was sufficiently novel for me to be flattered by the company I would be keeping. I had not bothered to read her writings; her evisceration of other victims was thus unknown to me.” Talk about unprepared.
William F. Buckley Jr., when asked once why Attorney-General Robert Kennedy resisted appearing on his TV show, quipped: “why does baloney reject the grinder?’ Kissinger in this case was the baloney, like many of Fallaci’s subjects, as she led him through the issues. But he eviscerated himself (or at least made a fool of himself) with these words expressing his vanity: “Americans like the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding alone on his horse…. All he needs is to be alone, to show others that he rides into the town and does everything by himself. This amazing romantic character suits me precisely because to be alone has always been part of my style.”
Journalist Mary McGory suggested Kissinger succumbed because at the core Fallaci “asked the question no man can resist: How come you’re so wonderful?” Beyond guarding against vanity Williams stresses it’s important to know beforehand what you want to achieve in an interview. Mr. Kissinger was just responding to questions while Ms. Fallaci had an agenda – the same as all reporters – to make news. Be prepared to answer questions with key messages but without seeming overly scripted or giving the same answer over and over.
Edward Kennedy lacked an agenda for the interview with Mudd but more importantly lacked an acceptable reason he could share in public about why he wanted to be president. Interestingly the softball question that tripped him up came in a mulligan interview after he was unsatisfied with his first sit-down with Mudd. He dealt with the toughie questions but on the softball he was like Casey at the bat, giving a long, wandering answer that talked about every possible political issue but never really said anything, until he struck out. There was no joy in Camelot that night.
Says Williams: “Kennedy couldn’t claim he was misquoted as his words were captured on film. Instead he raised questions about Mudd’s tactics and journalistic ethics. Still, his rambling response was evidence of something unresolved that led him to turn an obvious question into a long remembered, and much debated, defining moment.” As she advises: Think through your answers to the obvious questions. When the stakes are high, she suggests considering the possibility of your own ambivalence and how that can trip you up.
She also distinguishes between a softball question, on which you can swing and miss, and a gift question, which you should hit out of the park. Many journalists end interviews by asking, “Have I forgot anything?” Williams is astonished some interview subjects will respond, “No.” Use that gift to repeat your most important message. Hit it out of the park.
Haig wasn’t being interviewed. He inserted himself into a crisis situation. Reporters – the world – were seeking answers to who was in charge while Reagan was being treated in hospital. The situation could lead the Soviet Union or other countries to act in an unacceptable way. He presumably meant he was in charge administratively of the White House while Vice-President George Bush, the person constitutionally in charge, returned there. But his words were replayed over and over again, leading to ridicule and concern he was power hungry.
The lesson according to Williams: Don’t presume to rise to the occasion. “Haig made assumptions about his abilities. He spoke in haste and never lived it down,” she writes. Take a minute to create a headline about the most important thing you want people to remember from your remarks.
Know your intentions before stepping into the spotlight. “Consider whether your goal is to inform, reassure, motivate, explain, or inspire. If you don’t know, your audience won’t either. Haig’s problem was that he had two primary objectives. He wanted to warn the Russians and he wanted to assure Americans. He was conflicted and so was his communication,” she says. She adds that you should answer the question you’re asked rather than the question you fear – sometimes interview subjects over-anticipate the level of response required.
This is a fascinating book, rich in her reportage on the incidents and her communications advice, and those two streams of information deftly intermingled. It’s eclectic, ranging beyond these incidents to include Oscar Wilde’s damaging statements in his libel suit against the Marquess of Queensbury; Joan of Arc’s trial for crossdressing and heretical thoughts; Mary McCarthy’s over-the-top putdown of fellow writer Lillian Hellman (“every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”) and even, closer to home, Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman’s off-the-wall comments about not wanting to go to Mombasa because of his fear of snakes or ending up in a pot of boiling water. I enjoyed it as a journalist and I suspect that, as a government executive, you will as well.