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How Not to Be the Matt Lauer of Interviewing

It seems like a lifetime ago, but the Commander-in-Chief Forum preceding the presidential election was supposed to be an opportunity for both candidates to discuss national security. Instead, moderator Matt Lauer turned it into a seminar in how not to conduct an interview.

In light of his dismissal from NBC’s Today for accusations of sexual abuse, why focus on Lauer’s journalistic wrongdoings? Apart from providing a damning sense of how he views women, it’s an opportunity to study how interviewing technique can bring out important truths—or cover up massive deficiencies. In my business, that can make or break a project.

In the 2016 forum, Lauer let Donald Trump ramble and came away with only the most shallow understanding of the candidate’s ideas. On the other hand, Lauer grilled Hillary Clinton repeatedly about her email server and then rushed through a discussion of fighting terrorism, ostensibly the point of the event.

The hapless TV host, predictably, was savaged by actual journalists; afterward, one of the kinder observers called him “embarrassingly bad.”

Those of us who interview others for a living can learn a lot from Lauer’s disastrous outing. Let’s say you’re doing an important interview—of an older family member, a potential employee, a guest on your podcast. How can you get the most from the conversation?

You’re not a stenographer, so don’t act like one. Focus on the meaning of what your subject says. Do you understand everything? Does it make sense? Lauer let Trump say false, baffling, and meaningless things—and then moved on to the next question on his list. The goal of an interview is to learn something new. At this, Lauer failed completely.

Don’t interrupt. “Lauer interrupted me before I began answering,” Clinton writes in her campaign memoir, What Happened. And he interrupted her repeatedly for the next half hour. Be aware of this tendency, regardless of gender, and rein it in. In fact, learn to wait a beat before asking the next question or moving on to the next topic. A few seconds of silence might encourage your subject to work through an idea or memory.

Be curious. Lauer accepted Trump’s platitudes without asking for clarification, leaving his audience with no more information than they started with. People often use conversational shorthand to retell favorite anecdotes. Let your subject recount the story in full and then ask followup questions like, “Why did you feel that way?” or “Would you do that differently now?” Get people out of their linguistic ruts. Dig a little for the most rewarding responses.

Don’t put words in your subject’s mouth. Lauer asked Clinton about her qualifications. She gave examples, but he ignored them, saying, “So you’re talking about judgment?” (She wasn’t.) He then aggressively went after—guess what?—her apparent lack of judgment. Listen to what your subject is actually saying, and don’t try to fit it into a preexisting framework. Be honest about redirecting the conversation, if you must: “I want to go back to when you mentioned . . .” Or just trash your tidy list of questions and roll with the punches.

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