Traversing an Executive Interview

I admit it. I’m a little tired this week.  At close to fifty, I find that traveling the world and back and forth two hours or so to clients a few times a week to conduct interviews can be a bit taxing.  Plus, as we grow as a business, I can’t be everywhere.  I love conducting interviews – meeting new people who tell me things I don’t know already – but , as we continually strengthen our bench, I thought I’d try to encapsulate the training I’d like empowered Green Ink interviewers to have had.  Don’t get me wrong!  I’m not done traveling the world (at least I hope not), but I can’t keep this up forever!

But it sure has been fun to meet all the amazing minds I’ve been able to explore, to see all the places I’ve been able to see.  I’m lucky to have been entrusted to talk with some of the most influential people in corporate America – and around the world. 

There’s probably very little that I’ve actually developed new here, but I think I’ve been a pretty good sponge and absorbed some reliable tricks of the trade along the way.  I’d love to hear others’ tips that I’ve not included… these are from the perspective of a corporate ‘Producer-Director’.

Chip’s Interview Tips

I remember directing an on-camera executive delivery once with a person who was, even then, a very powerful woman.  Though I believe I’m respectful of people who have attained high rank or fame, I try not to let the situation intimidate me or make me nervous at all.  I felt particularly relaxed in her presence, and I said to someone on the crew, “Oh, she won’t mind doing it again if there’s a problem.” Well, she hadn’t in the past.

And she said, looking at me with a school teacher’s knowing smile, “Oh, she won’t, will she?”  I realized immediately that I had broken a cardinal rule of corporate culture:  I’d presumed. My critical error could have caused her, had she been any less gracious, to foster ill will against ‘that Director‘.

Thankfully, she didn’t say, “Don’t bring that crew back here again.”  But she very well could have.  It’s the little things that can cost a relationship.  Thankfully, she nailed it first take every time and has certainly continued to do so.

As they taught me in Boy Scouts (yes, I was a scout in the ‘don’t-ask-don’t-tell’ era – before the ban’), be prepared.   I hadn’t had my ‘prep’ session.  A bit too relaxed, perhaps.

The Pre-Interview Prep

Start with empathy.  It’s important to understand the executive and their goals; to understand their mood and their comfort level.

Executives do not like to be told what to do any more than any of us like to be told what to do. They also like to know what’s coming. I’ve often heard, “OK, so what are we doing?”  It’s good to be pro-active here.

Be direct.  “First we’re hoping to put you into make up with Milania here, then we’ll ask you to come over to the hot seat where Paul will put a microphone on you, and then we’ll have two or three minutes of final adjustment to the lights, and I’ll give you some more prep then…”

Be attentive, but let the make-up artist do their magic.  A good make-up person will provide a calming, spa-like treatment.  ‘You are special.’  You might use this time to discuss final expectations with the exec’s coordinators (if you haven’t had the pre-interview conference calls you probably should have had).

Ideally, the make-up person will ask questions along the way: “Do you mind…?”, “Are you ok with a little powder…?” “Would it be ok if we…?”  Listen to your subject’s answers.  These are ways of finding out important things like whether a person is nervous or not, whether they’re feeling pampered or poked, whether they understand the mission at hand or have unanswered questions.  If they are still unsure, they’ll typically ask over their shoulder to their comms person or assistant, “So, did you bring those notes?”

Oh no!  Not the notes!   The notes are deadly!  You should keep your mouth shut.  Let them do whatever they want.  It’s their show.  But be prepared to work with the comms person to help make the person feel more comfortable winging it.  Ideally, someone will say, “You know this stuff.” or “If you do it just like you did at the conference, we’ll be great.”

My feeling is, if we’re just regurgitating notes, we might as well publish that as printed material or do a prompter read (which is a whole other blog).

Sometimes, it’s not always judicious to offer marketing advice at that moment and you help them to struggle through.  Other times, it’s all the encouragement the subject needs to take that journey into the unknown with you that will make for much better ‘television’.

If you wouldn’t mind having having a seat, Jim here can put a microphone on you…

You might assume a certain level of media savvy if they’re senior executives, however, if they’re newly appointed, it’s often the case that they’ve not been on camera much before, particularly not in front of a TV studio camera.

It’s important to have on hand an audio technician or camera person who is experienced in ‘wiring’ a person with a corded lavaliere microphone.  Confidence is key.  Combine that with humility and sensitivity.  It’s really a matter of being adult about it and getting through it efficiently.

Again, the audio tech should ask questions: “Can you help me run this up the back of your buttons from here to here?”  Or, “How would you feel about putting it right here, on the lapel of your sweater?”  With women especially, the mic person is often working in a highly sensitive area.  The more ‘clinical’ this sometimes invasive medical procedure can be performed, the better.  Women can tolerate a Dr.’s touch, but not a punk’s.  I’m very conscious of who’s mic-ing my execs.  Trust is key.  Thankfully, I’ve never had a complaint.

Be sure to water your executive!   Put an unopened bottle of water next to the chair and let them know its there.

The Drill

As your team is adjusting the lights, take the opportunity to give a short drill.  I like to deliver something along the lines of:

“This is going to be easy. We’re going to have a conversation that nobody will ever see or hear in its entirety, so there is really no way that you could possibly screw up (or mess up depending on whether you’re subject is from the Midwest or not).  Feel free to stop a sentence and start it over again at any point.  You and I will be having a conversation.  We’ll edit this to take out any uncomfortable pauses, but feel free to just let your mind go and speak as you would in a normal conversation with somebody you are just informing about this subject.

“I don’t want you to be self-conscious, but there are a couple things I would ask you to try to remember…”

“If you could try to avoid using words like ‘as I said’ or ‘like I said before’ or ‘again.’ We very likely won’t have heard what you’ve said before.  We’re going to be taking this conversation and shrinking it down to two or three minutes and we probably won’t have heard that frame of reference, so we’re going to ask that every statement that you make is a complete statement, and we’d like you to try to add some context, because they’ll never hear my questions, they’ll only hear your statements.  It might help, for example, if you used some of my question in your response. ‘What did you have for breakfast this morning?’ ‘For breakfast this morning I had…’  If there is any time that you want to stop recording, just let us know, otherwise we’ll just record continuously.”

“So Paul, do we have speed?”

“Speeding”

During the interview…

Recognize that how you ask the question will dictate how the subject responds.  People have a tendency to mimic the person they’re talking with.  So, avoid ums and ahs and you knows and likes if you don’t want those words to constantly show up in your transcript.  Avoid long, run on sentence questions if you want to avoid having run on responses.

Nod attentively, and keep as much eye contact as is comfortable for you both, but feel free to look down at your notes from time to time to help reenforce your thoughts.  In the case of a customer testimonial, I like to have the customer’s company web site open so I can ask questions that are more relevant.  “I see you’re into tire distribution.  Tell me about that.”

Don’t wait til the end of the response to know what the next question is.  Nothing prevents a ‘conversation’ from happening more than smiling attentively, rewarding them with a ‘that was great,’ and then pausing to look down at your notes for the next question.  “Let me see here… um….”  NO!   Please!   Keep it flowing.  Act interested.  Ideally, you will be sincerely engaged in the subject matter you’re discussing and have a real interest in discovering the unique story or perspective here.  If you’re feeling informed and surprised, then your final viewing audience will as well.

I try to make subjects feel like they’ve come into our living room, into our environment. This is our home that we’re sharing with you, and we want to you to be as comfortable as possible. Relax and we’ll go for a little journey together.

Analogies

I think it helps to compare what we do in interviewing people with other occupations. I was thinking that it’s like bringing somebody into the barber’s chair and being sure to always ask what they’re looking for before assuming anything; to make sure you have that understanding of what the haircut is going to look like before you embark upon the service.  This mindset can help you to help the subject create the story that they want to tell.  I’ve often said, “They’re the expert.  I just try not to get in the way.”

Some have suggested that it’s akin to a dentist chair where you let somebody know that this really might hurt.  If you see they’re nervous, empathize.  “I know this feels painful and you can’t wait to get it over with, but the good thing is, once the camera starts rolling, people usually can’t tell that you’re nervous – and it goes away.  It’ll never feel completely comfortable, but that can also be a good thing.  The good news is: it’ll be over in ten or fifteen minutes.”

Having been in the hot seat, once the camera starts rolling, it can feel to the person who’s ‘on the spot’ like an out of body experience.  Your job is to walk them over to the other side.

Time is Money

So the question is “How much time should we level set the executive interview subject for in terms of time?” We recommend staging interviews within an hour block if they’re back-to-back interviews at a conference or other type of event. Although this schedule can certainly be accelerated and people can be waiting in cue and we can make that a half hour. But this hour allows us to create a window of ability to change lighting, change background. Essentially what we’re looking at from the executive is 5 minutes of make-up, 5 minutes of microphone and chair prep, 15 minutes of conversation and 5 minutes taking of the microphone and taking off any make-up.  And, if the program calls for it, perhaps we can take 15 minutes after the interview to shoot some ‘day-in-the-life’ b-roll.

Devil’s Advocacy

When there’s time, after I’ve exhausted the questions I’ve worked out with the client beforehand (which I try to keep as simple as possible; leading questions; softballs), I ask the subject if they’d mind if we ‘shift gears a bit’ for a couple ‘devil’s advocate’ questions.  Usually, I get a fairly confident, ‘Bring it on’ kind of look.  And I do.

With as broad a smile as I can muster, I’ll pretend I’m a probing reporter, looking for something scandalous.  This is when I’ve found I receive the answers that are best if I’m the one creating the script.  These are the questions the MarComms people are often afraid to ask, but which the discerning viewer is dying to know…

“So, why would I want to buy your product.  Aren’t you just trying to sell me a lisence and then get me hooked on your ‘proprietary’ software?”  You can hear the comms folks gasping.  But the execs – so far – have loved these questions.  No one’s thrown me out on my ear – yet.

Other examples might be, “There are so many brands that are already so established. What makes you think you can beat out some of these competitors?” “You say they’re open standards, but they’re not really ‘open’, are they?’

I haven’t found an executive yet that doesn’t enjoy this type of challenging question and the opportunity to really drive home the passion behind the product or the brand.

These answers will usually have the ability to cut through the noise and answer the FAQ’s most don’t dare ask.

Off-Camera Approach

For the past 20 plus years, the defining ‘style’ for interview-based video, or ‘cinema verite’ has been for the interview subject to look just off camera, with the interviewer hugging the lens to create an ‘almost talking directly to us’ feel.  I’d expect this style to continue to be used and there are still videos that benefit from this style.  If this is the preferred approach, you’ll want to make sure the subject knows to, “Look at me, not the camera.  The camera’s not there.  Try to ignore everyone and everything else.  It’s just you and me having a conversation,” and I do a back and forth gesture between my eyes and theirs.  The first question of, “Can you tell me your name and spell if for me.” is a good first test of whether they’re heeding your advice.

Direct to Camera?  You betcha!

Ever since seeing Errol Morris‘ fantastic IBM documentary for Ogilvy, 100 by 100, I’ve come to love the credibility of a direct-to-camera approach.  Talk about not getting in the way.

But how can you help the subject to be comfortable in this environment, to not feel abandoned, like a deer in the headlights?

Errol Morris uses an innovative (albeit expensive and large footprint) two-camera, two teleprompter system that allows the interviewer’s head to appear in the subject’s prompter screen and vice versa.  In this way, the two can have a conversation as if in a video conference environment.  A less expensive and I think equally valid approach is for using only one prompter.  Though a second prompter helps, the interviewer doesn’t necessarily need to see the subject directly.

But corporate budgets do often allow for a prompter and, I’ve found we just don’t need one to achieve a comfortable look.  I’ve developed my own approach that I feel works well for the corporate world…

I give the subject my normal prep as if it’s ‘just you and me having a conversation’.   Except here, I tell them, “But let’s pretend you’re on the moon and you’re talking to me back in mission control.”

And then I duck under the camera; sitting cross-legged under the camera on the floor or just off to the side, bowing my head down so as not to distract the person, and then I point right into the lens.  “OK. So, I’m right in here.”   

And, it really shouldn’t, but it works!

The subjects relax and I’m right there with them, engaged in conversation…  I pretend I’m blind and sometimes I’ve found myself rocking back and forth in agreement.  It helps me to focus on their messaging and develop my thoughts for the next question.

This has been an especially effective approach in marketing programs and webcast roll-ins where we’re trying to really engage the viewer.  Executives seem to be fine with this, though some prefer a prompter or notes in front of them if they’re going direct-to-camera.

I asked a CEO of one of the top petroleum companies in the world if he minded doing an interview direct-to-camera vs. to off-camera, and he told me it really doesn’t matter to him as long as there is someone there that he can talk to.

So I’ll end this on that note.  Cause isn’t that what it’s all been about?  Finding interesting people to talk to?   In the case of the executive interview, it’s not about you having to be interesting.  It’s really about finding what’s interesting about the person you’re talking with – so other people can share in the insight.

Here’s to all the interviewers out there!  I think most would agree, we’re a lucky lot!

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