My philosophy of interviewing

by on September 28, 2017 at 12:12 am in Education, Philosophy, Web/Tech | Permalink

After I do Conversations with Tyler interviews, I receive emails telling me I should have “stuck it to person X,” rather than “letting them off the hook,” etc.  “How could you not refute them on that topic!”  And so on.  Just to be clear, here is my underlying attitude behind the series:

1. Appreciation is an underappreciated art and skill.  These interviews are most of all about appreciation.

2. I hope to teach people how to learn from other people.

2a. For one thing, you can learn from what the interviewed person says, whether or not you agree with it.  In fact, you do better if you don’t focus on whether or not you agree with it.

2b. You also can learn something through a better understanding of how the person built his or her career into a success, and usually I ask something explicitly along these lines.  The broader conversation is implicitly all about this, of course.

2c. You also can learn something about how I try to learn from these people.  And that is the part of the conversation I have the most control over.  I am trying to teach the art of learning, and that art involves less rather than more contradicting and gainsaying.

3. Follow-up questions are overrated.

4. You want the interviewed person to be maximally open and relaxed, to bring out a steady stream of their best content.

5. If I leave a topic hanging, perhaps it is because I want you, the listener, to think more about it.

6. The best follow-up questions don’t sound like follow-up questions at all.

As I said to Ed Luce before my conversation with him: “You know, most famous people are used to someone trying to make them look bad.  They actually should be more nervous about someone trying to make them look really good.”

1 Chris Said September 28, 2017 at 12:24 am

Interesting points. Keep on doing what you’re doing. I like the interviews just as they are.

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2 anon September 28, 2017 at 12:53 am

Scott Alexander on your list?

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3 Ashish Kulkarni September 28, 2017 at 12:43 am

Could we also have a post on your philosophy of researching for an interview?

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4 nborlaug September 28, 2017 at 12:49 pm

+1

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5 anonymous September 28, 2017 at 12:45 am

Most people are wrong about almost everything. Think about this: Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Faulkner, and Nabokov, and the rest of that crew, were tuned in to their zeitgeist but there is a reason why the 20th century had nothing more than them instead of another Shakespeare, the reason is what you just described, nobody challenged them to be better, to describe the world as it is, in all it personal spectacular ways. People with talent do not need to be appreciated Tyler they need to be challenged.

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6 anonymous September 28, 2017 at 12:47 am

people with real talent. You have interviewed several. Ask them if what I said was true.

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7 anonymous September 28, 2017 at 12:57 am

“in all its personal spectacular ways”. That being said, you are a really good interviewer.

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8 carlospln September 28, 2017 at 2:04 am

I second anonymous above.

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9 C October 6, 2017 at 4:57 am

My understanding is that Professor Cowen’s challenge is to us, the listeners.

10 Pipsterate September 28, 2017 at 11:11 am

I wouldn’t say that Shakespeare was superior to all the writers of the 20th century, I think we’re just more forgiving of his works due to their high reputation and age. Literature ages like wine.

I expect that people in the 24th century will be lamenting the lack of Prousts and Nabakovs.

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11 anonymous September 28, 2017 at 11:43 pm

Pipsterate – that could be true. I forgot Sigrid Undset, though, I feel bad about that, but I guess maybe she was more of a genius who was not tuned in to her zeitgeist, at least in her better works. And Faulkner and Kafka and Joyce are really good writers, and I hope the 24th century has people like that too. Trivia – both Joyce and Nabokov had brothers who were more fun to be around than they were – wittier and more polite.

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12 efim polenov September 29, 2017 at 12:03 am

Not to mention Khodasevich: for example, “The Ape”, translated by Alex Cigale, for free somewhere on the internet. Can you imagine the level of understanding it requires to write a poem like that? (the poet is walking in a town, somewhere, it does not matter where, and comes across a Serbian organ grinder and his monkey. He describes the monkey as the monkey deserves to be described: as God is my witness, Shakespeare would have cried reading this poem, not from envy but from joy at the realization that the monkey, looking into the eyes of the poet with gratitude for the gift of a little bit of water on a hot day no different than any other hot day, had been described at the level Shakespeare wanted to describe people); poor little guy, he never thought of describing a monkey so well. Heart speaks to heart, not always in words: often, more often than we remember when we have not been thirsty for awhile, in gifts of water.

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13 RM September 28, 2017 at 1:26 am

Can you snag an interview with Trump?

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14 Jeremy Bancroft Brown September 28, 2017 at 1:26 am

Conversations with Tyler is probably my favorite podcast because the questions are deeply researched, highly specific, and sometimes even surprising to both the listener and the interviewee. This tends to prevent the guests –many of them very practiced public speakers– from giving answers on autopilot. You can learn more about someone’s thought processes when you hear them puzzling through one of Tyler’s questions on the spot. That said, with more policy-oriented guests I think there is value in testing some claims and mapping out disagreements without making anything argumentative or personal. Ezra Klein’s podcast is a good model for this.

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15 prior_test3 September 28, 2017 at 1:49 am

Play the count the ‘Tylers’ in the following text – After Tyler does Conversations with Tyler interviews, Tyler receives emails telling Tyler Tyler should have “stuck it to person X,” rather than “letting them off the hook,” etc. – averaging 1 ‘Tyler’ per 5.5 words (5 ‘Tylers’ and 28 words)

But then, who would want to read this sort of writing – ‘After doing Conversations with Tyler interviews, people send emails saying it would have been better to “stick it to person X,” rather than “letting them off the hook,” etc. (1 Tyler per 28 words precisely)

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16 anonymous September 28, 2017 at 1:56 am

lighten up dude

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17 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ September 28, 2017 at 6:12 am

That sounds good, and in it we can see Tyler’s main focus, as a teacher and mentor of young people. Hence the theme of success and how to get there. I am sure many students are tense over that. I was.

I think those of us in other stages of life should be even more generous, and give that kind of patient ear to even more people. Especially in real life. Success is grand and all, but the guy inspecting your house for remotes might have some interesting things to say, and appreciate a listener.

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18 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ September 28, 2017 at 6:15 am

s/remotes/termites/

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19 Ralph Wiggum September 28, 2017 at 7:26 am

I’m learnding!

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20 rayward September 28, 2017 at 6:50 am

Cowen is an exceptional interviewer, but an even even better interviewee. As I commented yesterday, Cowen is the preeminent public intellectual. The interview of Cowen by Bill Kristol is but one example of Cowen’s breadth of knowledge. As I’ve commented before, Cowen’s responses to questions are immediate, organized, clear, thoughtful, and persuasive. There’s no rambling by Cowen; indeed, there’s not even a pause for Cowen to organize his thoughts before answering – even Larry Summers pauses a few seconds before responding to questions. Here’s my explanation: Cowen is known for his speed reading ability. In an interview, he explained his secret: he has read so many books on so many subjects, that he can discern something new by simply scanning the page. I believe the same applies to interviews: he has read so many books on so many subjects, that he has already considered almost any question one might ask him about a subject, so he’s able to respond immediately and clearly as if he had been presented with the question in advance – because he has already presented the question to himself!

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21 anon from cl September 28, 2017 at 7:26 am

Cowen’s responses to questions are immediate, organized, clear, thoughtful, and persuasive. There’s no rambling by Cowen; indeed, there’s not even a pause for Cowen to organize his thoughts before answering…

That is one of the reasons why I like this interview so much. I wasn’t even aware of Margalit Fox’s existence before, but some of her answers are extraordinary (skip the Uverrated or Underrated section, it’s overrated).

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22 anon from cl September 28, 2017 at 7:27 am

Sorry, I meant to use this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrRHIJrzCco

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23 reed e hundt September 28, 2017 at 7:03 am

all good points but…..the point of a follow up is to clarify….which you don’t often do because you seem eager to move on to another topic

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24 dan1111 September 28, 2017 at 7:41 am

I think the point is whether those follow-up clarifications are valuable (compared to the new content on other topics they replace).

After years of reading this blog, one thing is clear: Tyler doesn’t place a high value on clarification. He is quite happy to throw something ambiguous out there and let people try to connect the dots.

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25 Urso September 28, 2017 at 11:40 am

an understatement for sure

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26 bellisaurius September 28, 2017 at 8:04 am

Would it be possible for you to teach jerome mcdonnell on worldview to give this sort of interview? I think this is what he’s aiming for, but it comes across as softball, and while I get that the guests are often sympathetic, when you don’t get something out of them, you sell the listener and the guest short.

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27 Clay September 28, 2017 at 8:52 am

Keep it up, there’s more than enough direct, combative journalism out there. Interviews like this give a lot more context to understand the person’s thinking as a whole, which helps put the controversial issues in their proper context.

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28 Ryan T September 28, 2017 at 9:29 am

Seems to be working. I’d note that enough of the questions are pre-loaded with the combative elements interviewers usually reserve for the follow up. Also, the guests’ answers usually are detailed and rarely sound like soundbite baloney. That alone, in an era of media training, is an achievement.

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29 jseliger September 28, 2017 at 10:15 am

I’d also ask, “What is scarce and what is abundant in a given system?” Today there seem to be plenty of people trying to “stick it to” someone else, especially someone prominent, and relatively few trying to appreciate (or whatever word might be used) and learn. Trying to do less of what’s abundant and more of what’s scarce is often a good idea.

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30 TM September 28, 2017 at 10:33 am

This is basically the Charlie Rose formula. And is what makes his show good.

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31 The Other Jim September 28, 2017 at 11:03 am

> I hope to teach people how to learn from other people.

Interesting, because on this site, you’ve been trotting out the exact same opinions on social matters for at least five years.

Why haven’t you learned anything at all from other people?

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32 chrisare September 28, 2017 at 1:13 pm

“3. Follow-up questions are overrated.”

Why?

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33 blades September 28, 2017 at 1:52 pm

Tyler, you are definitely putting your plan into practice, and I think it works great. My only complaint is there should be many more interviews! When are you getting Mick Jagger. He can talk about his days at the LSE!

And as Brendan Behan used to say: “F the begrudgers.”

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34 Barkley Rosser September 28, 2017 at 2:53 pm

As someone who has interviewed a number of people for books (see The Changing Face of Economics for one), I agree that the best followup questions do not appear to be followup questions. I think it is also the case that with rare exceptions one gets much more by being essentially sympathetic to the interviewee and getting them to tell their story as they sit it, for better or worse. Tyler seems to be good at that.

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35 Michael Stack September 28, 2017 at 4:24 pm

“You know, most famous people are used to someone trying to make them look bad. They actually should be more nervous about someone trying to make them look really good.”

How come?

P.S. I really enjoy the interviews, the questions are original and thought-provoking for both me and the interviewee. The interview Tyler did with Singer is among my favorite interviews ever. The questions about immigration and utilitarianism were brilliant.

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36 Barkley Rosser September 29, 2017 at 10:56 pm

Michael,

How come? This is easy. Because most of them have had experiences of being either misquoted or quoted out of context in ways that make them look they are saying the exact opposite of what they were trying to say, as well as making them look stupid if not downright immoral.

I am not as famous as the people Tyler talks to, but I have not only interviewed others but been interviewed many times over the years by many sources, and have had this experience. Even non-famous people have reason to be a bit wary when getting interviewed.

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37 Barkley Rosser September 29, 2017 at 10:59 pm

That said, most interviewers do not pull these sorts of stunts, although incompetent ones can do low level versions of it unintentionally, which is bad enough. But, it only takes a couple of such experiences to make frequent interviewees reasonably wary.

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