What You Don't Want to Hear as a Journalist: "You’re A Terrible Interviewer"

President Obama on "Between Two Ferns"

President Obama on "Between Two Ferns"

By Matt DiVenere

You know those brain farts that you get sometimes? Maybe you walked into a room with a purpose, but within seconds completely forgot why you were there? It happens to all of us. Unfortunately, when it happens to journalists, it ends up on YouTube.

There’s been two pretty significant “bad interviews” in the past week – one was intentional, and one was, unfortunately, not.

The first was by comedian and beard-aficionado Zach Galifianakis. Yes, it was in complete satire and was for marketing purposes for the Obamacare healthcare website; however the interview with President Barack Obama was quite a success. A 40 percent increase in traffic to the government website along with the video itself being seen over three million times within hours on the Funny or Die website can be characterized as a job well done for the marketing geniuses behind this.

I’m no stranger to the “Between Two Ferns” web series by Galifianakis. I’m a fan of anything he’s done, especially from a comedic standpoint (Don’t get me started, I can talk comedy for days). Despite the obviously-scripted dialogue from the President, Galifianakis delivered yet again.

If you watch other episodes from this series, the idea of a “terrible interview” rings loudly. It got me to thinking about my early days in journalism and a few of my very noticeable flops. But before I could elaborate on those “glory day” memories, the Internet hit it rich again.

That’s gold, Jerry! Gold!

Listen, I don’t watch Piers Morgan’s show on CNN (and, judging by the show’s ratings and the fact he was fired, not many other people do either). But if the person you interview all of a sudden tells you how terrible you are as an interviewer instead of answering your question, you’ve done something wrong. And it’s probably not just one thing, it's probably the entire thing.

Every time you sit down for a one-on-one interview with someone, it’s as intimate as you can be on a verbal level with a stranger. So there’s a very real possibility that at some point you or the person you’re interviewing is going to be as uncomfortable as they will ever be in their life during your interview. That will happen. A good interviewer will steer you back into the conversation, while others will just leave you flailing in the wind.

My very first interview in college still haunts me to this day. My first-ever college journalism class gave us an assignment on the first day to go out and interview a resident director about college life and their job. So I set up the interview, get my pad and paper, and head over to her office. Well, I walked in, introduced myself, took a seat, and bam! Nothing. Completely forgot the questions I was going to ask. I then decided to spend the next 15 minutes asking her about things that she didn’t even care about. Abruptly, I stood up, thanked her for her time and left.

By the time I got outside, I realized what I just did. All of my dreams and aspirations came crashing down on me at that moment. What in the world am I doing? Luckily, I willed myself to turn around and redo the interview.

Now, whenever I go to an interview, you better believe I have some topics and questions written down in my notepad.

For more essays, check out our full archive