Will McAvoy has a lesson for us

I think most of us have become familiar with the way our online surfing habits are monitored by clever-dick pieces of software that profile our tastes, the better then to dangle under our noses advertisements for juicy morsels. Likewise if this rhetor habitually seeks speeches, who’s to blame YouTube for offering him more of what it believes to be the same? Thus it was that I found myself watching an opening scene from a piece of fictional TV.

I don’t watch much television but I understand that the HBO series, The Newsroom, is shown on my side of the pond. I’ve never seen it so I knew nothing of what I was watching, but my curiosity held my hand away from the Off Button long enough for my eyes to narrow at the graphic demonstration of some of the principles I teach.

I trust that knowledgeable fans of this series will forgive my obvious ignorance of it, while I zero in on areas of my particular expertise.

Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, is one of a trio of celebrities in a Q&A session at (presumably) a university. The other two guests sing like canaries, but the chairman is getting pissed off with McAvoy’s not saying much. He tries to coax or even bully out of him more comprehensive exposure of his views, and fails miserably. A woman in the audience holds up a sign that then prompts McAvoy finally to deliver a very pithy little speech.

The writing of this scene is clever, not least because McAvoy is a news anchorman. When I coach people for being interviewed by the media, I try to have more than one trainee at a time; because then I can get them to interview each other. The quickest and most thorough way of developing an understanding of the nature of this ritual is by experiencing it from both sides. McAvoy is a communicator and interviews people for a living. He is far more comfortable in this environment than anyone else on that stage. He knows the most fundamental principle of all…

While it is the interviewer’s duty to draw information from the interviewee, it is not the interviewee’s duty to impart anything except on his own terms.

[I could very easily follow that headline with several hundred words of explanation, enlargement, illustration, exemplification and caveat. but I’ll spare you.]

McAvoy’s opinions are unfashionable, They run counter to the prevailing group-think. If he just plunged in and spouted his unpalatable stuff he’d be digging himself a hole and anyway would be silenced by universal disapproval. Likewise if he refused to speak at all he would be condemned as surly, snooty and obnoxious. Therefore he restricts himself to evasive utterings that are at the same time both dumb and smart-arse. In the process he creates a pent-up demand for his views, till the professor/chairman is reduced to insisting that he open up.

And now they hear him out.

I am not for one second suggesting that you try to use this video as a blueprint for a future interview, because for one thing the process is far more complicated than this example and for another you do not have a script writer to make the other side do what you want. But espousing the above principle, and never speaking beyond the end of your answer, will put you ahead of most interviewees that sully the airwaves.

As to what McAvoy actually says…well, if I were asked to deliver a talk on a subject of my choice, outside that of my work, McAvoy’s theme would be in my top three.

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