Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Al Franken on the interview pivot: When it works, or not

While promoting his new book, Al Franken: Giant of the Senate, the former Saturday Night Live satirist-turned-senator sat down with NPR's Terry Gross. And just as his book turns U.S. senate procedures inside out, making them more transparent, the interview wound up demonstrating what's known as the "pivot," that moment when the interview subject changes the subject to something more on message than the reporter's question.

It's a risky move, as we've discussed before. In Media interview smarts: Do you have to answer the question?, researchers note that, in some situations, your pivot may not be noticed by the audience. But in other situations, it will stick out like a sore thumb--including those in which the interviewee egregiously changes the subject.

For Franken, it's been doubly difficult to learn, since his first instinct is to go for the joke. Franken and Gross had a funny and frank conversation about the pivot that demonstrated its pluses and minuses. From the transcript, after Franken talked about an interview when he blurted out something funny, but inappropriate, in answer to a question:
FRANKEN: And it - and they're going like, why did you do that? Why didn't you just say I can't remember one? And I write about that in the book. And it's about pivoting, learning the basic pivoting. You've probably experienced a pivot. 
GROSS: Oh, my God, I hate it when politicians pivot.
FRANKEN: Well, that's why you're... 
GROSS: You ask a question and you get a pre-planned answer to the question that you didn't ask. 
FRANKEN: But the good ones are good at pivoting. 
GROSS: So you get the talking point that the politician wanted to put out instead of an answer to your question. And you say in your book that you had to learn how to pivot even though you hate to pivot. So what is it like to have to do something in an interview that you - you used to call that stuff out, you know, as a satirist... 
FRANKEN: Exactly. 
GROSS: ...And then you have to do it yourself? 
FRANKEN: Well, some - see, the reason they give you the talking point, now, they should... 
GROSS: You better answer my question (laughter). I'm just... 
FRANKEN: This - I'll get to - I'll answer your question. 
GROSS: OK. 
FRANKEN: But the reason you do that is actually you do want to get the message out that you want to get out that day. It's strategic. And that's why your communications team tells you, you know, today you're about talking about the terrible Republican health care bill. And so if they ask me, why are you 20 points down to, you know, to your opponent? You know what? People in Minnesota don't care about polls. What they care about is the health care bill. That's a pivot, right? 
GROSS: Right. 
FRANKEN: So it took me forever to learn that. And it's because I think I'm a very literal person. And I think my parents just taught me if someone asks you a question, answer the question. And so what I would do is answer questions. And then I'd go on about it. And invariably, whatever was on the news or whatever was on the radio or whatever was on - in the newspaper was not our strategic objective. So I had to learn that.
There seems to be agreement with that, even from the reporters' side of the house. I was mildly suprised by this piece by reporter David Weigel, One weird trick Democrats could use to stop stumbling over Pelosi and abortion questions, in which he wonders why the Democratic leaders still answer their most difficult questions, when the Republicans--who used to do the same--pivot. Weigel advocates for the pivot, noting "As a reporter, I benefit tremendously when politicians can't figure a way out of a question. But I'm surprised every time."

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