How to Tell When a Speaker Isn’t Thinking, and How Not to Become That Speaker

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How to Tell When a Speaker Isn’t Thinking, and How Not to Become That Speaker

Here’s a word of advice if you are ever the subject of an interview: Have a conversation, not a recital.

We’ve all heard those bizarre talks where the interviewer and the interviewee seem to be having two entirely separate discussions. But what’s actually going on there? It’s a situation where the interviewee is not thinking – at least, not thinking about the interview as any sort of conversation.

There are two types of non-thinking interviewees: the propagandists and the rote-reciters.


These are people with an agenda to push, who grimly stick to it no matter what. If you hear an interviewee whose answers never seem to match the questions, listen for words or phrases that come up repeatedly in virtually every “answer” they give. It will soon be clear that these are “buzz words” they want to plant in your mind so you can never. get. them. out. You are the blank slate (they believe) upon which they can impose their will, if they can Just Say These Words Often Enough.

The person is not having a conversation or thinking about the interview at all, except insofar as they calculate how to manipulate it so they can ram those buzz words into the air waves one more time. No matter what question they are asked, they will devise a way to twist the response into a repetition of one or two points, over and over and over. Public relations people and professional handlers call this “staying on message.” What it is, in fact, is advertising, pure and simple. Propaganda. These interviewees are not there to have a dialogue, and the interviewer could just as well be a potted plant and they wouldn’t notice.

But remember that this grim “staying on message” is deeply annoying and off-putting. And leads to justifiable cynicism in all your listeners, who smirk and say, “All those people are the same. Why should I care what they say, since they always say the same thing?”

Is that what you want people to think when you are interviewed?


These interviewees are less insidious and manipulative, but they, too, have a problem with thinking while being interviewed. Their reasons are different, though. They may be uncomfortable speaking in public, so they pretty much memorize the information they want to convey, and can only express it by reciting it exactly the way they memorized it. Others may be people who are big on Protocol and Format, who can not break out of their format and just talk.

I heard an example of the latter this morning. It was a police officer, talking about an armed standoff at a restaurant over the weekend. The interviewer first described how a man came into the restaurant and had a meal, later handing the waitress a note saying he had a gun. After giving this information, the interviewer introduced the officer and said something like, “So what happened when police arrived?”

And did the officer respond by taking up the story from the moment when police arrived at the restaurant, in answer to that direct question? No! He first repeated all the facts the interviewer had just described: “At approximately such-and-such p.m. on Saturday, a man entered a restaurant and had a meal…” Etcetera.

This of course meant the audience (well, me) was drumming their fingers on the breakfast table, rolling their eyes, saying, “Yes yes, we already know all that. How about answering the actual question?”

Police are notorious for this rote recitation (remember the Perils of Important Speak?), but this problem isn’t restricted to them. Anyone who memorizes a body of material in a chunk is going to end up doing this. Sometimes the needless repetition of material means half the interview time is wasted. These people are unable to pick up their “story” in mid-stream, but always have to recite from fixed starting points.

Note to Self: Don’t do these things!

If you are interviewed for any reason, please don’t be either a Propagandist or a Rote-reciter. You will turn off vast swaths of your audience this way. What should you do instead? Have a real conversation. And how do you accomplish this? By doing two things primarily:

A) Know your information so well that you can pick up a thread at any point, and talk about it. Let the interview flow naturally, conversationally, in any direction, and as your information is pertinent to the question, it will come to mind and let you relate it to the question and to previous discussion.

B) Be yourself. If you turn off your audience, either by trying grimly to ram propaganda down their throats at any opportunity, or by having to recite whole chunks of text from beginning to end, you will defeat the whole purpose of your interview.

I can hear you now. “But – but – if I do B), I might miss telling the audience something important!”

So what? If they like you, they are likely to look for other interviews, or find things you have written. They’ll follow you on Twitter or Facebook. Or buy your book. They will find out all the important things you think they absolutely must know. But only if they haven’t turned off the radio because you tried to ram it down their throats.

All you really need to remember is certain key points of your information, and how those relate to each other. There is a difference between knowing the words, and knowing the ideas. Understand the ideas, and you’ll be able to express them in all sorts of different words, in different conversations. The important thing is that the audience respect you enough that if you do miss something, they’ll still be interested enough to find it out themselves.

Do not be a Rote-reciter. And most especially, if you want to gain any real respect for your ideas, do not be a Propagandist. Just have a conversation, and everything else will fall into place.


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