Competing for Eyeballs: An Alternative to Shock Tactics

Delray Beach, FL.- The cover story of last week’s The New York Times Magazine featured this headline: “My Cousin Was My Hero. Until the Day He Tried to Kill Me.”

Catchy, for sure. But it’s a headline you’d expect to see in a tabloid, not The New York Times.  Was this an anomaly?

I don’t think so. The language of the most respected brands of mainstream media has been changing in recent years. It’s getting bolder. More sensationalistic. And more prone to exaggeration.

It happened first in the various supplemental services that so many newspapers and magazines offer online. In that arena, they have to compete with the alternative press for attention. And often the best way to get that attention is by posting sensational headlines.

Once they entered the competition, it was only a matter of time before their standards would adjust from traditional notions of propriety to “whatever works.”

I’m very aware of this pressure. As a consultant to the alternative media (which makes its money by subscription and not advertising), I’ve seen countless test results proving that provocative subjects and alarming and tantalizing headlines will beat the hell out of sober issues and sensible headlines every day of the week.

As a copywriter I know once said in an interview about his own sensationalistic copy: “At one point, I came to the conclusion that what I was doing was slightly manipulative. And yet it was working so well and making me so much money. I had a choice: Change the copy or change my ethics. I decided to change my ethics.”

Is this a bad thing?

I don’t know. On the one hand, I like the idea of having standards – for the sake of the writers as well as the readers. It has a civilizing effect. On the other hand, once the advantages of monopoly disappear and a publisher must compete in an open market, it’s going to be very difficult to stay profitable unless you are able to use the same techniques and strategies as your competition.

In the long run, I don’t think it will do much harm. Writers will become more pragmatic in choosing the topics they want to write about. (They will move to what’s hot, topical, and controversial.) At the same time, they will get more skillful at writing headlines. As a result, readers will become accustomed to hyperbole and sensationalism and thus become less responsive to it. When that happens, perhaps there will be a growing market for serious topics and sober headlines.

Perhaps.

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Lurid (adjective).- Lurid (LOOR-id) means shocking, causing horror or revulsion; glaringly vivid or sensational. As used by Edgar Allan Poe in The Pit and the Pendulum: “Demon eyes, of a wild and ghastly vivacity, glared upon me in a thousand directions, where none had been visible before, and gleamed with the lurid lustre of a fire that I could not force my imagination to regard as unreal.”

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“Flight of the Conchords” (Netflix)

On Wednesday, I posted my mini-review of the HBO docudrama series “Chernobyl.” After watching an hour of the deeply distressing first episode, I needed a half-hour of fun – and I got it with an old episode of “Flight of the Conchords.”

If you haven’t seen it, “Flight of the Conchords” is a quirky New Zealand series starring comedian/musicians Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement. Based on a BBC radio show, it is a fictionalized account of McKenzie and Clement’s efforts to achieve success as a band in New York City. The humor is both self-effacing and satirical. Each episode is punctuated with clever-funny songs of their own composition.

I absolutely love this series. But K – and I suspect many others – do/did not. Here’s a test: Clement and McKenzie bill themselves as “the almost award-winning fourth-most-popular folk duo in New Zealand.” If you don’t like that, you probably won’t like it.

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This Is Why I Can’t Stop Teaching and Writing

 An email from JW:

I am a 24-year-old entrepreneur…

Thanks for all of your writing! I am a huge fan of Ready Fire Aim, several of your books, your essays from Palm Beach Research, and your blog. [They] have helped me develop a business that is entering “stage 3” (as described in Ready Fire Aim)….

 I see myself at an important phase in my life where I am trying… to focus on the right things….

Between wealth creation, charity, your appreciation of the finer things (Living Rich), your family values, and plenty of other reasons, I consider you a fantastic role model….

Thank you for the massive impact on my life you have already made. Excited to see where the next few decades go!



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About half of the PragerU material is standard Republican fare… not particularly novel and very debatable. But some of what they do is thought-provoking, regardless of your political orientation.

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How NOT to Do an Interview

 

Friday, May 17, 2019

 

Delray Beach, FL.- If you have any ambitions of doing a podcast, you will eventually need to learn how to do a good interview.

Of the many skills involved in podcasting, you’d think interviewing was the least difficult:

  1. Pick a topic (question/argument/myth) your audience cares about.
  2. Invite an expert on that subject to talk with you.
  3. Ask him questions.
  4. Publish the podcast.

If your goal is to publish ordinary interviews that are pretty much guaranteed to bore your audience, this formula is sufficient. But if you want to use the podcast to grow not only your immediate audience but your brand in the industry, there is one more step you must take: You must learn how to conduct a GOOD interview.

 

Think about all the podcast interviews you’ve listened to over the years. What percent of them were really good? A third? A quarter? My answer: less than 10%.

 

Recently, I was copied on an exchange between Master Copywriter Bob Bly and JB (an entrepreneur whom I don’t know). The subject was a series of interviews Bob had conducted as part of the Gene Schwartz Graduate Course on Marketing.

 

JB said:

 

I loved the course and I think a big reason was the way you conducted the interviews.

 

I’m used to modern podcasts where the hosts ask uninteresting questions and then butt in right when the guest is about to say something interesting. You were the exact opposite. You asked interesting questions, let the guests speak when they had something good to say, and followed up when there was more for them to say.

 

So I wanted to say thank you. This was a great course, and you helped make it happen.

 

JB is right about Bob Bly. He’s an expert interviewer. And as an expert, he does indeed ask interesting questions and let his guests speak.

 

But what, exactly, is an interesting question? I’m sure that all of those mediocre podcasters out there think their questions are interesting. How are Bob’s different? And better?

 

And what about this idea of letting your guests speak? Who doesn’t do that?

 

This isn’t going to be a full lesson on how to conduct a great interview. Nor am I going to answer those questions fully. But I’d like to give you a few of my thoughts on this topic that may be helpful if and when you have the opportunity to interview someone for publication.

 

Don’t Be Stupid!

 

Whenever I mentor writers, I give them a little speech about “the three deadly sins of creativity.” These are three common human frailties that, when given into, make otherwise good writing mediocre crap.

 

The first deadly sin is ignorance – writing on a subject about which you know very little. You might understand it superficially, from the outside. But the most important aspects of anything worth studying are usually internal things hidden from superficial analysis.

 

When it comes to conducting interviews, writers often act like ignorance is perfectly okay. “I may know very little about this person or what they do,” they think. “But that’s okay. In fact, it’s good, because I’ll be able to get clarification on everything simply by asking questions.

 

We all know what happens when a writer conducts that sort of interview. She asks the most obvious questions and gets the most obvious answers. After two or three Q&As, the reader senses that he’s hearing nothing new and stops reading.

 

To ask the sort of “interesting” questions JB was talking about above, the writer must have a fairly wide and deep understanding of both the interviewee and the subject matter before he turns on the microphone.

 

How does he do that?

 

Don’t Be Lazy!

 

The second deadly sin is related to the first. It is the sin of laziness. It is probably the most common sin of not just all writers but all creative workers in every field. It’s the deadly sin I’m most guilty of. And it’s the most common deficiency I see in the writers I coach.

 

When it comes to interviewing, being lazy is about research and preparation. When preparing for an interview, for example, it’s not enough to speed-read the interviewee’s latest book and a few online critiques. You have to read other books and research her biography and speak to a few friends and colleagues.

 

To put a number on it, you should be prepared to put in about five minutes of research for every minute of the interview. And unless the interview is live, you should spend two to three minutes talking for every minute of the final product. Lazy writers won’t do this. If they are smart and quick thinkers, they can sometimes get away with their lack of preparation. They are able to produce B-level products by being clever and avoiding the obvious questions. Natural intellectual gifts can get you a passing grade in life, but if you want excellence, they are inefficient.

 

Don’t Be Prideful!

 

The third deadly sin for writers is pride.

 

Thomas Merton, one of my favorite poets, said that pride makes us “artificial” and that humility makes us “real.” When I first read that, I didn’t understand what he meant. Now I think I do.

 

Being proud of what you have or what you’ve accomplished seems like a perfectly natural and even healthy emotion. But life teaches us that these possessions and accomplishments are ephemeral. Standing on your pride may provide some temporary feeling of self-worth. But when pride takes its fall, and it always does, self-worth crashes down along with it.

 

The purpose of an interview is to discover secrets, stories, and life lessons from a conversation with the interviewee. To get beyond the surface and be able not only to ask interesting questions but to get honest and interesting answers, the interviewer must do three things.

 

First, he must demonstrate to his interlocutor that he has done his homework in terms of researching his background and his accomplishments. This signals that the interviewer cares enough about the subject to put in that work.

 

Second, the interviewer must spend some time thinking seriously about the subject’s background and accomplishments. His thinking must be focused on trying to understand the subject’s particular genius and his ethics – what he thinks is important.

 

Third, the interviewer must find something in his research that he genuinely admires about the subject. And he must tell the subject that – genuinely – in the beginning of the interview.

 

The combination of doing all three things demonstrates, quite clearly, that the interviewer appreciates the interviewer’s background and his accomplishments. The interviewer indicates that he is a sympathetic listener.

 

All of this amounts to one thing: In preparing for and conducting the interview, the interviewer must put himself below the interviewee. He does not have to artificially pretend he’s a fan if he is not. But he must be wiling to subsume his pride. To humble himself. To be able to ask the sort of questions that will make the subject feel he is at least understood and appreciated, if not admired.

 

One very popular podcaster is virtuous in regards to ignorance and laziness. He knows his subjects and their work and it’s clear that he’s done his homework. But when it comes to the third deadly sin, he fails. He seems unable to ask a simple question. He must pose it two or three different ways, as if he thinks his audience enjoys hearing him say the same thing over and over again. The other thing he does is interrupt the subject constantly. As if, again, he feels like his audience is more interested in his ideas than the subject’s. I actually find myself embarrassed as I listen to him. “I don’t care how smart you are,” I find myself thinking. “I want to know how smart the subject is!”

 

So these are some quick thoughts on how to prepare for and conduct good interviews. Put in the work needed to understand the subject’s background and his accomplishments at a reasonably deep level. Spend some time thinking about what matters to him. And all the while, and especially during the interview, keep in mind that it’s not you that the audience has come to learn about, but the subject.

 

Work hard to be knowledgeable. Be humble. And you will find that the audience will be truly interested in both your questions and the subject’s answers. Your podcasts will rise above the mediocre. They will be genuinely GOOD.

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Nocuous (adjective) .- Something that’s nocuous (NAHK-yoo-us) is harmful, likely to cause damage or injury. As used by the Indian spiritual leader Guru Nanak (1469-1539): “[The king] shall use his utmost exertions to remove those men who are nocuous like thorns. [He] shall cause a goldsmith who behaves dishonestly, the most nocuous of all the thorns, to be cut to pieces with razors.”

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