Although the interviewer must always be polite, the role also requires a need to be firm and assertive(Shutterstock)
Although the interviewer must always be polite, the role also requires a need to be firm and assertive(Shutterstock)

The right power balance in an interview

When you call your guests Sir, you convey an inability to hold them to account. When you call them by their Christian names, you imply an unwillingness to push them to the ropes. In either event, you don’t inspire confidence
UPDATED ON DEC 05, 2020 08:43 PM IST

It’s not a question of earth-shattering importance, but it is one that I have been asked so often that I’ve begun to believe people are truly curious about it. So today, let me attempt an answer. “Why do you never address people by their Christian names in your interviews?” I’m often asked. “In fact, is there a general rule or principle that determines how you address them?”

There is, and to my mind, it makes a lot of sense. First, however, it depends upon the sort of interview you are doing. In what I call chat show interviews, where you are talking to authors, directors, actors, musicians and the like about themselves and their art, it’s conventional to use first names.

These are interviews where you’re encouraging your guests to tell stories about themselves. Stories that reveal their personality or their experiences and, thus, tell you something about what they’re really like without becoming intrusive or probing into areas that might discomfort them. In such interviews, the informality of first names is a huge help. On the other hand, if you address them as Mr, Mrs, or Ms Surname, you could end up erecting metaphorical barriers. That would distance rather than take you closer.

The other sort of interview is of the current affairs or news variety. More often than not, the task is to sceptically question what someone in authority has said or done. The aim is to find out the truth, something they usually do not wish to reveal and will try hard to hide. This makes you protagonists.

Although the interviewer must always be polite, the role also requires a need to be firm and assertive. Such interviews are best conducted when you call your guest Mr. Surname or, if it applies, Minister.

A third alternative, which some find cumbersome, is Christian name Surname. But to call him Sir or Shashi, Sitaram and Amit would be terribly wrong. Let me explain why.

When you address your interviewee as Sir, you place him on a pedestal and, therefore, above you. The term suggests a certain superiority. It’s rarely if ever used between equals. And when you have thus elevated someone, there is also a subtle message conveyed to the audience. You’re unlikely to handle him toughly. But if you can’t be tough you won’t get from him the answer he’s reluctant to reveal. Equally importantly, this sort of deference diminishes your capacity to control and guide the interview. Even if you are not following, you’re certainly not leading.

I would say it’s equally wrong to use Christian names. When you call your guest Shashi, Sitaram or Amit, you’re suggesting they are chums. This is a familiarity that, equally effectively, precludes toughness. Instead, it suggests to the audience that you and your guest are on the same side. You, therefore, won’t push him to the point he becomes uncomfortable. You won’t expose his weakness. You won’t embarrass him.

The conclusion is simple: When you call your guests Sir, you convey an inability to hold them to account. When you call them by their Christian names, you imply an unwillingness to push them to the ropes. In either event, you don’t inspire confidence.

Of course, there’s a lot more that determines the impact of an interview. You need the right questions; they must be asked assertively, not hesitantly, and, perhaps above all else, you need to persist, particularly when your interviewee is reluctant to answer or is prevaricating. But the first impression depends on how you address your guest. If you get that wrong, retrieving the interview could be very difficult.

Finally, if you think this is an old-fashioned way of conducting interviews, just watch the BBC for 10 minutes. Boris Johnson would never be called Sir. The chairman of British Airways would never be addressed by his first name.

Even Rishi Sunak, who’s younger than every television anchor likely to question him, is always called Chancellor. Never Rishi.

Karan Thapar is the author of Devils Advocate: The Untold Story
The views expressed are personal
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