Ever wondered what it’s like to be interviewed on the radio or television?
It’s been a busy couple of weeks for Nick Smith, author of I Was Wrong: the Meanings of Apologies. Here are some of his thoughts on dropping everything for media appearances, his own radio idol, and being accused of having a speech impediment.
Jonathan Gaugler, my hard-working publicist at Cambridge, asked my to write up some thoughts about the flurry of activity since the release of I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies. This is my first book, so this is all new to me.
Diane Rehm devoted an entire show to the book on Tuesday. This may not sell as many copies as an appearance on Oprah, but for me it was even more thrilling. Diane Rehm belongs in the pantheon of great figures in contemporary media, and I don’t know of any better interviewer (although Terry Gross surely warrants similar praise). As so many programs become increasingly argumentative and paced for short attention spans, she slows down conversations and treats her guests with such grace and thoughtfulness. She listens enthusiastically, which I find to be one of the most important skills for any teacher. Over the years I have looked to her show as a model for conversations in my classrooms, so this was like meeting the master.
Preparing for such interviews seems to require a different approach that the usual academic presentation. You cannot read a paper of carefully chosen words and Power Point will not help you here. Even on an hour-long program like this, you need to speak in blurbs. You cannot ramble on for a few paragraphs finding your point as you might at a conference. To prepare for this, I skimmed my book and marked the sentences and turns of phrase that best captured the essence of my argument without relying on any philosophy jargon or otherwise sounding too technical. Having spoken with the show’s producer, I had a sense for the sorts of questions Diane might ask. We did not have anything like a script, but I knew that a few issues would probably come up and I practiced answering them aloud to myself.
I felt quite under-prepared going in to the studio, but I was properly caffeinated. Diane and I chatted across the table before the show began, through the breaks, and after it ended. I was so engaged with her that I forgot that millions were listening and at times I wasn’t even sure if we were on the air or in break. Diane fielded calls and read listener emails, and I found it rather amazing that she multitasks like this while having conversations about such diverse topics every day. Responding to listeners presents another layer of challenges for the guest because just about anything can come up and you have a split second to decide how to respond, and I have a renewed respect for hosts and guests on call-in programs.
Before I could catch my breath I had a digital copy of the show, a stack of printed emails from listeners, and an invitation to return when I finish the next book on apologies in law. I felt good about it. I didn’t swear or cry, which were two important objectives. Friends who had heard the show around the world called and emailed to share their excitement. I learned about the sale ranking figures on Amazon, and the book peaked around 1500 that evening. My inbox was full with messages of various kinds from listeners. Some shared genuinely interesting personal examples that I’ll need to think seriously about, others invited me to speak regarding reconciliation in their communities, and one less friendly fellow derided my “grotesque speech impediment” before proceeding to ask substantive questions. I’m not sure what sort of person picks fights with guests on The Diane Rehm Show, but I imagine he could benefit from my book.
On Sunday I appeared as an “expert” on the national Canadian television program CBC News Sunday during a segment on Elliot Spitzer’s apology. I connected to the Toronto studio via satellite link in Manchester, NH, and I had to stare at a mark on the wall while I was being taped and pretend like I was speaking to a live interviewer. This was a bit disorienting, but I’m practicing talking to a light bulb in case the opportunity arises again.
I am still digesting the experiences, and hopefully I learned something that I can apply in the upcoming interviews. I realize that if you want to be in the media, you have to jump when they call. I was in the middle of refinishing the floors of my New Hampshire house last week—a time sensitive job for various reasons—and I had to drop everything to get to D.C. for the interview with Diane Rehm. My wife and son are still in New York waiting for me to finish the floors. Hopefully I’ll be done by March 30, when I will be on Philosophy Talk on KALW San Francisco for on an hour-long radio discussion of I Was Wrong with Stanford University philosophy professors Ken Taylor and John Perry. Ken and John are very sophisticated philosophers, so I will face some challenging questions. I will also be interviewed for an hour by Laura Knoy on New Hampshire Public Radio’s The Exchange on April 9. And if you like country music, I’ll be discussing apologies on WOKQ Radio next Sunday evening. I hope they introduce my segment with Patsy Cline’s “I’m Sorry.”