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Friday, 10 February 2017

The Q&A trade

Gummed-up eyelids caused me to misread the bedside clock and I got up an hour early. Not wanting to disturb VR by going back to bed, I took to the downstairs couch and let my mind wander. Thought about interviewing, the basis of my ex-job as a journalist.

I've interviewed hundreds. MDs, engineers, academics, travellers from the top deck of the Clapham omnibus, teachers, men of the cloth, bike racers powered and unpowered, software geeks. Brits, Germans, Americans, the French, Italians, Venezuelans, Antipodeans, Swedes (lots of them), Canucks. In Tokyo I questioned a logistics specialist via a translator, in Geneva - daringly - I interviewed the catering manageress of the World Health Organisation in French.

These weren't adversarial encounters as seen on telly, I was simply after info. Even so, skills are involved. You need to keep your mind open as well as your ears. To compare today’s revelation with a chance remark you overheard six months ago.

Notes are essential. You must keep track of what you're asking so that the answers build up naturally into the article you will eventually write. It's important not to come over as stupid since you'll usually be talking to experts. You have to show you know things, not in depth, shallow will do. I am naturally facetious but I made that work for me. You cannot afford to be shy.

In whodunnits the rule is Cherchez la femme. In my latter-day journalism it was Cherchez l'argent. Cash usually defines success and failure even in activities away from business; many are reticent about this and it's your job to prise them open.

If there’s a rapport it’s exhilarating, a bit like ice-dancing.

Could I do it now, old and enfeebled? I reckon. Wanna try me out?


  1. No thanks to your invitation - I have been through your probings before.

    I had several job interviews in my career and often found the interviewers was more concerned with telling me how accomplished they were, and how they had climbed to their exalted position, and I developed a sort of skill at tactfully interrupting to give myself the chance to promote my own attributes. That taught me the value of listening carefully which paid off when I became the interviewer later.

    My employment involved interviewing business people with a view to my employers lending money to buy new machinery, and other capital equipment. That meant I had to get information about their business ability, track record, integrity and the viability of the use for the new equipment. If I felt there was a case and the amount required exceeded my £50k acceptance authority (that was a lot over twenty years ago) I would send an application to Head Office for approval.

    We had a guideline nemonic:

    P - People

    A - Amount (size of loan required and repayment period )

    R - Repayment-ability

    S - Security (what would be the sale-ability and the worth of the goods be if we had to repossess)?

    E - Expediency

    R - Rate of interest to charge (we were in serious competition)

  2. Interesting and intriguing.
    You have to provide more, now that you started this.
    Techniques, style, have you a standard approach, pet questions, how do you decide what's important, in short: what skills?

  3. Sir Hugh: Yes, but how did you check whether they were fibbing?

    Sabine: Do background stuff first (eg, for a business man: name of interviewee, position, how long at job, number of employees, exact but brief description of company's products and/or services, etc). This neutral stuff will relax him.

    You will be there for a specific reason - a new product, expansion of business, his promotion, whatever. You will have received a press release couched in terms which show this change in its best light. Ask questions which re-define the change in more credible language.

    Beneficial but often vague claims will be made for the change. Seek to quantify these claims. Faster? - by how many kph. Cheaper? - by how many euros?

    Ask which competitor he's targeting.

    Here's where you assert yourself by showing what you know: But surely X's widget is almost as fast (cite a figure, any figure) and costs the same.

    From then on the fun starts.

    This is the dullest and easiest scenario. If you were there, say, to discuss his promotion (usually to top dog) the tempo would be different: less of a square dance, more of a minuet.

    The key to it all: you've got to care about the factual nature of the answers, and their quality. Are they surprising? If not isn't it his fault?

    Heck, you could do all this Sabine. Incidentally one of my daughters is into money-laundering. Against it, that is; putting the SoBs away.

  4. I expect you ought to give us a sample. You might be a dangerous interviewer...

  5. Marly: In November 8, 2008, I posted the following for my previous blog, Works Well, when I blogged under the name Barrett Bonden (a character in Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey-Maturin series). This is not the article as it appeared in the magazine I edited, just a few extracts, but it gives you some of its flavour:


    “So what kind of magazine is it? The shitty kind?” Ivor Tiefenbrun opening the batting when I interviewed him in 1987 about his Glasgow hi-fi systems company, Linn Products. No complaints, it was a dream interview.

    Linn is renowned for quality and prices. An LP turntable (they still do them) costs £2000, plus £250 for the power supply. But I was there to find out how products were made. Tiefenbrun’s methods were ambitious and techno-sharp-edge. “Automation as the first step to more automation,” Tiefenbrun said. Getting hold of the stuff wasn’t giving him any joy.

    Tilting back, feet on the desk, in jeans and an open-necked shirt (both rare among businessmen then) and wreathed in Gauloise smoke, he railed against suppliers’ poor service and lack of realism. “One quote for the automated handling system was bigger than the budget for the whole new factory. Another company was well down on price but they gazumped us.”

    And: “Planning delays eroded our budgets and cost us a fortune. All the state bodies have buggered us about. Some 10% of the building cost is related to fire protection; it’s just a joke.”

    A lot of it was too technical – but funny and profane – for general consumption. If he hadn’t been someone with a worldwide reputation he might have been seen as a blowhard. But he often knew more about technology than those supplying it. Later I actually paid to hear him speak about manufacturing at a prestige event organised by the Royal Society of Arts. One memorable sentence: “Those that didn’t know about willies would think it was a good thing to have.”


    NOTE: What I failed to mention a few days ago was that I also carried a camera and the double-page spread that kicks off the article (shown in the November 8, 2008, post) has a large photo which superbly summarises Tiefenbrun's attitude to the world in general.

  6. Thanks for all the details. While I am a curious person, I don't think I could be as organised as you and probably make a mess of it. I supposed the real trick is in listening and not talking yourself, hard for me at any time.

    Ivor Tiefenbrunn could have walked out of Smiley's People with a name like that.