I wrote on Facebook and twitter today that I was still cringing from Steve Croft‘s interview with President Obama on “60 Minutes.” There are many things I would have done different. The whole point of having the President go on a show like “60 Minutes” is to have him tell the story from his perspective. In order to tell a story properly you need to start at the beginning BEFORE the moment of change or conflict of the story. This puts your interviewee chronologically in line with the events as they happened so he/she can take you through the emotional journey instead of reflect on events from a mental space. Thus, question #1 from Steve Croft to Barack Obama immediately put the President in a head space aside from being hyperbolic, and closed.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, it was certainly one of the most satisfying weeks not only for my Presidency, but I think for the United States since I’ve been President. Obviously bin Laden had been not only a symbol of terrorism, but a mass murderer who’s had eluded justice for so long, and so many families who have been affected I think had given up hope.
And for us to be able to definitively say, “We got the man who caused thousands of deaths here in the United States and who had been the rallying point for a violent extremist jihad around the world” was something that I think all of us were profoundly grateful to be a part of.
Notice how the President responds to the hyperbole “most satisfying week of his Presidency.” He down plays this point and takes the wind out of his own sails by putting a qualifier of “one of the most” on it AND pivoted from his Presidency to the United States of America. Talk about down playing the importance of an event in your career. Sheesh. Ideally you would start at the beginning of the story – maybe even 9/11 – and work your way through the events. IF you ask this question keep it open and let him define for himself.
What was this past week like for you?
How was this past week different than other weeks of your Presidency?
How satisfying was this week of your Presidency?
Similar mistakes are made in question #2.
KROFT: Was the decision to launch this attack the most difficult decision that you’ve made as Commander-In-Chief?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Certainly one. You know, every time I send young men and women into a war theatre, that’s a tough decision. And, you know, whenever you go to Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] or Bethesda [Naval Hospital] and you see the price that our young people pay to keep this country safe, that’s a tough decision. Whenever you write a letter to a family who’s lost a loved one. It’s sobering.
This was a very difficult decision, in part because the evidence that we had was not absolutely conclusive. This was circumstantial evidence that he was gonna be there. Obviously it entailed enormous risk to the guys that I sent in there. But ultimately I had so much confidence in the capacity of our guys to carry out the mission that I felt that the risks were outweighed by the potential benefit of us finally getting our man.
Again, the President qualifies his answer and down plays the difficulty.
The next question is actually three questions in one. I’m not sure Steve Croft could have given him more exit ramps to give an answer without giving an answer. The more questions you compile into one – the less information you get. The interviewee then has a choice to answer the question that’s easiest to answer. Ask ONE question at a time and keep it open-ended.
KROFT: When the CIA first brought this information to you . . .
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Right.
KROFT: What was your reaction? Was there a sense of excitement? Did this look promising from the very beginning?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: It did look promising from the beginning. Keep in mind that obviously when I was still campaigning for President, I had said that if I ever get a shot at bin Laden we’re gonna take it. And that was subject to some criticism at the time, because I had said if it’s in Pakistan and, you know, we don’t have the ability to capture ‘em in any other way, then we’re gonna go ahead and take the shot. So I felt very strongly that there was a strategic imperative for us to go after him.
Shortly after I got into office, I brought [CIA director] Leon Panetta privately into the Oval Office and I said to him, “We need to redouble our efforts in hunting bin Laden down. And I want us to start putting more resources, more focus, and more urgency into that mission.”
Leon took that to the CIA. They had been working steadily on this since 2001, obviously. And there were a range of threads that were out there that hadn’t quite been pulled all together. They did an incredible job during the course of a year and a half to pull on a number of these threads until we were able to identify a courier who was known to be a bin Laden associate, to be able to track them to this compound.
So by the time they came to me they had worked up an image of the compound, where it was and the factors that led them to conclude that this was the best evidence that we had regarding bin Laden’s whereabouts since Tora Bora.
But we didn’t have a photograph of bin Laden in that building. There was no direct evidence of his presence. And so the CIA continued to build the case meticulously over the course of several months. What I told them when they first came to me with this evidence was: “Even as you guys are building a stronger intelligence case, let’s also start building an action plan to figure out if in fact we make a decision that this is him or we’ve got a good chance that we’ve got him, how are we gonna deal with him? How can we get at that?”
And so at that point you probably had unprecedented cooperation between the CIA and our military in starting to shape an action plan that ultimately resulted in success this week.
Look at it again. The first of the three questions – WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION? – is a great question. But, the President picked the easier of the three and latched on to it, “It did look promising…” – and then he went straight to talking points. When you offer a closed question like this the interviewee can only affirm your personal hypothesis of what happened. In this case the answer is either yes or no. This is interviewing on a hope. You HOPE the interviewee expounds on what they’ve answered. Unfortunately for “60 Minutes,” the President didn’t. He went from 2010 and leaped back in time to before his Presidency in 2007 and talked about how this was a campaign promise and how hard he worked to get this done from day one.
That’s just the first three questions. I could go on and on. Croft asked if it was hard to keep the secret, did he want to tell Michelle, did he tell Michelle? The President ducked the answer with a general statement. Never answering if he talked about it with the First Lady. Again, too many options or exit ramps for the President to escape direct questioning.
When preparing for interviews have a goal, start at the beginning, ask one question at a time, refrain from hyperbole, ask open-ended questions, and don’t test personal hypothesis. You’re conducting an interview to get information, perspective, insight or reaction that you don’t already have – so don’t try to guess the answers. Get out-of-the-way and let the story be told. Great questions to use in an interview include…
- and then what happened?
- how did that make you feel?
- when did you know?
- why did you do that?
- how was that?
Ask lean, neutral, open-ended questions.
…and don’t interview on a hope.