13 June 2009

Interview techniques, politicians and how we judge them

It’s almost impossible to watch or listen to a media interview without coming to a positive or negative impression of the person who is being interviewed.

This is very clear in the following exchange between Andrew Neil and cabinet minister Yvette Cooper – watch the whole thing first and see what you think before reading on:


I deliberately didn’t use the original YouTube version, because its title – ‘Yvette Cooper’s worst interview yet … probably (and that’s saying something)’ – might have influenced your own personal reaction.

The video a splendid example of something I’ve mentioned in a number of previous posts, namely that a major reason why the interview is such an unsatisfactory form of political communication is that it’s so easy for politicians not to answer questions and so difficult for interviewers to extract answers from them (without coming across as unreasonably hostile or biased, on which see HERE).

In this case, the interviewer's difficulties in getting an answer out of the interviewee and her determination not to provide one are even more evident than usual, because of the extraordinary amount time that both of them spend speaking at the same time as each other – which is a such a flagrant breach of the most basic rule of conversation of all, namely ‘one speaker speaks at a time’, that it’s bound to be noticed by any competent speaker of the language (i.e. viewers and listeners).

But what still hasn’t dawned on politicians (and the media advisors who train them how to perform in interviews) is that coming across as evasive or as someone who ‘hogs’ the conversation’ invariably creates a negative impression.

So, if your reaction to Ms Cooper veered towards the negative end of the scale, you shouldn’t be at all surprised. You are not alone – as you’ll see from these samples from the 117 comments posted by some of the 8,000 people who have so far seen the interview on YouTube:

“I watched this today as well, and couldn't believe my eyes. Every time I see her being interviewed she always tries to speak over the interviewer and never answers the question directly. She has this 'I don't care how stupid I look' kind of attitude which doesn't do her or her party any favours. Just answer the question you silly woman!”

“All Labour ministers go to the same school where they learn to ignore the question, talking over the interviewer and acting in a supercilious arrogant manner. No wonder the public hate them.”

“This is Bliar's real legacy. The complete triumph of waffle and spin over unpleasant facts.”

“I'm surprised the leftist BBC allowed Andrew Neil to press Cooper like this. But he did a good job and still got no answer. As other people have said on here, she is just a pre-programmed robot reading from a script embedded in her brain.”


The video also provides some excellent illustrations of what the late Gail Jefferson, one of the founders of conversation analysis, referred to as ‘overlap competition’.

The argument, briefly stated, goes like this. So basic is the ‘one speaker at a time’ rule that we get uneasy when we find ourselves in situations where it is being violated, whether by ourselves or by someone else. As a result, one or other of the speakers will always eventually give way, thereby enabling a return to orderly turn-taking where ‘one speaker speaks at a time’.

Jefferson also noted that there are two techniques available to interrupters, one of which is always far more effective than the other when it comes to winning and holding the floor.

To win, all you have to do is to carry on speaking and ignore anyone else’s attempts to ‘get a word in edgeways’. And it’s no use just trying to get the odd word or two in - e.g. ‘but- but- but' - and expect that the other person will give way, because, so long as you proceed no further than that, they won’t.

For the purposes of what follows, let’s call these truncated attempts to get the floor the ‘staccato’ technique.

But if you’re more persistent and launch unhesitatingly into producing a fully-fledged sentence, the power of the one speaker at a time rule will start to weaken the other person's determination and knock them off course – by making him or her feel just as uneasy and inhibited as you felt when you were breaking the rule.

So long as you carry on speaking as fluently as you can (or dare), you’ll eventually force your competitor to back off and leave you in the clear to say whatever you like.

For the purposes of what follows, let’s call this the ‘continuo’ technique).

I’ve edited this interview into five consecutive sequences, in which you can not only see both speakers using both of these techniques, but also how whichever one persists with the ‘continuo’ technique always wins.

Episode 1: Neil's initial use of staccato fails and he only wins when he uses continuo to assert that he's asking her a question:


Episode 2: Neil’s several initial attempts at staccato are defeated by Cooper’s persistent use of continuo:


Episode 3: Neil’s initial attempts with staccato fail but he wins through as soon as he opts for continuo:


Episode 4: Cooper’s persistent use of continuo wins through and frustrates Neil to the point where he explicitly complains that she is preventing him from asking his question.


Episode 5: Having got the floor, Neil makes the most of it by asking a much longer question than usual, which Cooper seems to treat as an invitation to produce an even longer answer. Initially, her use of continuo successfully holds Neil’s staccato efforts at bay. Then, very unusually, both of them start using continuo at the same time, and Cooper only backs off when she gets to the end of her sentence, leaving Neil in the clear to carry on and get his question out.



Next time you find yourself in a situation where you’re competing to get a chance to speak, remember that the staccato technique is unlikely to succeed, but that you're almost certain to win if you’re prepared to use the continuo technique.

But remember too that the only thing you'll win is the space to say whatever it is you want to say and that such victories come at a price - namely that people will not only notice what you're doing but will also use such behaviour as a basis for drawing negative conclusions about you and the kind of person you are.

Sooner or later, politicians may actually wake up to this brutal fact of life and realise how little there is to be gained from talking over their interviewers and ignoring the questions put to them.

And as a footnote, on this evidence from Ms Cooper (AKA Mrs Ed Balls), one does have to wonder who wears the trousers in the Balls household?


· Why it's so easy for politicians not to answer interviewers' questions - and what should be done about it

· Gordon Brown’s interview technique: the tip of a tedious iceberg

· A prime minister who openly refused to answer an interviewer’s questions

· A Tory leader's three evasive answers to the same question

· A Labour leader with no interest in spin!

· Derek Draper breaks a basic rule of conversation

· Applause for Dimbleby’s questions on Question Time

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