Sunday, October 17

It doesn’t matter how smart you are: talk for more than a minute and you’ve lost me | Radio

James Comey has been on my mind since I recorded an interview with him. last month for my radio show. The former FBI director and declared adversary of Trump spoke with a winning mix of intelligence, outspokenness, humility and some spite. Nice work, sir. But there was more to it than that. It’s one thing for an interview to be good; another is that it is easy to edit. My producer, listening, purred with satisfaction because it was the easiest edit of all. It didn’t need any editing; what we recorded came out exactly as we recorded it. This had as much to do with the length of Comey’s responses as it did with what he was saying. Whatever the optimal length of responses, our man got it right.

I listened again, with the intention of producing an instruction sheet for all my future interviewees to read. His first eight responses ranged in duration from 21 seconds to one minute 43 seconds. They averaged just over a minute. I wonder if this type of duration is not only perfect for the convenience of overworked producers and presenters ‘blood pressure, but also for listeners’ understanding. It may be the cleverest of clogs, but if you hit it for good, you may lose your attention and its brilliance will escape us.

I have done many interviews with interesting people who tell fascinating stories that do not reach the end because their answers are too long to live in the time allowed. Mind you, listening again, my embarrassingly rambling questions don’t help much either. I am working on it. I’ve been working on it since 1993, in fact, and I’m sure there will be an improvement soon.

The very erudition and eloquence of a speaker is sometimes the problem. Barack Obama is an example of this. At David Olusoga’s interview with him for the BBC Before the publication of your latest book, the first response is one minute 50 seconds; the second at three and a half minutes and the third at dangerously close to the five-minute mark. These may have been shorter answers edited together, but it didn’t look like it. Such was its fluidity that I’m sure if I interrupted it it would have felt like putting paint on a Monet, but I found it a bit tiring listening to it. Obama could get away with it; the rest of us can’t, on the radio or in real life.

It may be that my judgment is influenced by the time I spent presenting The One Show on BBC One. Here brevity was absolutely essential rather than desirable. It didn’t matter if the guest was Clive James, Michael Caine, Bette Midler, Gordon Brown, Morrissey or Meryl Streep, they had no more than four minutes at most to do their bit. For added distraction, they would have to do this between a movie about, say, badgers and another about perhaps the design of the front doors. I remember a bewildered Michael Stipe who struggled more with this. I will never forget to see the whites of the poor man’s eyes as he tried to make sense of everything. He appeared to leave public life shortly after. For my part, I lost the ability to carry on a conversation for more than three minutes. Even bumping into someone in a pub I found myself asking them three quick questions before feeling the need to move on.

But ever since I scrutinized that Comey interview with stopwatch in hand and after listening to conversations, including mine, on air and off, a simple rule occurred to me: never speak for more than a minute at a time. Less is always more. On air, I hardly ever despair because an interviewee’s responses are too short. It’s like leaving church: in all my years I’ve never heard a comment from one parishioner to another, “You know, I really wish that sermon had lasted longer.” In the case of conversations, if not in the homilies of the priests, a whole minute speaking at a time is enough; more than that and if your name isn’t Barack, you’re being boring.

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