The Memorization Trap

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I’ve spent hundreds of hours interviewing people, everyone from the CEO of Intel to a homeless man, and still I fell into the Memorization Trap.

Earlier this year I signed up for a conference in Chicago because the main speaker was someone who had a major impact on my career. Leading up to the event, the speaker offered limited access to one-on-one coaching. This was an amazing opportunity for a small business owner and all I had to do was apply with a 3-minute video.

Piece of cake! What could be easier than grabbing and iPhone and pitching to camera? You see I have some unique advantages:

  • I’m an expert at making great videos.
  • I’ve interviewed hundreds of people.
  • I’ve been interviewed on live TV.

I wrote out an outline, ran it by my team at Pathfinder to make sure the approach was good, and PRESTO! I’m ready to record.

That’s when things took a wrong turn…the iPhone started rolling and my mind went blank. I looked at my notes, then back to the iPhone, then back to my notes. A voice in my head said, “This is not going to end well...”

I started speaking, but it was like I was in a wind tunnel -- I couldn’t hear myself. I’d get 70% of the way through a thought and forget the next word: “What’s the word? What’s the word?? It’s the word we use to describe how we get clients….” Nothing. I took a sheepish look back to my notes, “Oh yeah, referrals. The word is referrals.” UHHHHGGG!

Cut. Start over.

I was stuck in the Memorization Trap, trying repeat exactly what I wrote. On the next take I made it all the way to, “clients”... and my mind went blank again.

Cut. Start over.

After 60 minutes I still didn’t have anything usable, let alone good. My ears were pulsing in time with my heartbeat, my throat was tense and I’m angry with myself.

Why did it feel like such a big deal? Why couldn’t I MAKE MYSELF do better? I’m just a guy sitting in his own office. I had all the time in the world to get it right.

Let’s take a look at how the Memorization Trap might happen to you.

You know you’re going to be on camera and that there’s stakes. You want to look good and sound smart, so you write out your thoughts. You review your notes by focusing on keywords and phrases. Then when it’s time to deliver on camera your mind goes blank. After the first mistake you feel even more nervous. It feeds on itself until you’re left feeling ill, angry, and embarrassed.

Often you’ll find that the Memorization Trap catches people at the worst time: A high-pressure environment with tens of thousands of dollars on the line. The classic example is when your organization has hired a camera crew for a day to interview your co-workers, or the CEO, or when you're trying to document a customer’s experience on camera.

With the clock ticking people in the room will try to help out: They’ll tell the interviewee, “Relax. No stress. You’ll get it.” The person will nod, laugh nervously and try again, only to stammer to a stop even sooner. Feeling like they let the whole room down, the interviewee berates herself for the failure. “Stupid. Dumb. What’s wrong with me? Just get it right.”

Someone will then try and help by offering a line, “Why don’t you say it like this…” For the first 5 seconds the interviewee does beautifully, all of the sudden just as you think she’s about say it just right, the two ways of phrasing the thought collide mid-sentence, and the words come out in a jumble -- like a slam poet reciting a terrible haiku.

You want to help but somehow can’t, and the interviewee feels defeated. They think, “I’m terrible on camera.” Or, “I’ll never do that again.”

I’ve seen this type of experience haunt capable and well-spoken people for years.

The good news is there’s a simple mindset you can adopt to help even the most nervous person overcome the Memorization Trap and do well on camera. It doesn’t require media training, an executive coach, or a psychologist to reconstruct their psyche!

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How to get amazing on-camera interviews from almost anyone

There’s a couple of basics before you start filming:

  • Plan on editing. Don’t expect yourself or your subject to deliver a 5-minute speech word-perfect.
  • Have subjects look at the interviewer not the camera. Most people aren’t comfortable having conversations with inanimate objects.

Now that the easy stuff is taken care of, it’s time to help people shine.

1) Focus on conversation flow, not specific words and phrases.

People read nonverbal cues before registering what the person is saying. If my voice cracks while I’m talking about our value proposition, the first thing the viewer thinks is: “This guy is nervous. Why is he nervous? Is he credible? Does he know what he’s talking about?”

The best way to get a great result from someone without media training is to help them have a good conversation. The more comfortable you can get them, the smoother the conversation flows and the more confident they become.

2) “Coach” with good questions.

Have an interviewer coach them through the conversation while they are on camera. (This can be a professional or someone on your team.) Warning! Coaching is not feeding them lines. A good coach is someone who can get them into a flow by asking questions. It’s okay if they miss something. Keep a mental checklist and circle back around to it later by asking again in a different way.

Note: Avoid the scenario of supervisors interviewing subordinates. The power dynamic is too transparent and the interviewee will come off as defensive.

3) The Warmup: Start simple. Build to complex.

The easiest way to get someone into a good flow is to start simple. Don’t start by asking about the most important thing. Begin with what they had for breakfast, ask them about their drive to work or what they’re going to do with kids that evening. Then piggyback on their answers -- tell them about a similar experience that you’ve had or share what your day has been like.

We don’t expect opera singers to jump on stage and sing a song from Figaro without a careful warm up for their vocal cords, so why do we expect that an untrained person will be able to jump right into a smooth delivery on camera?

Tip: A good warm up can often do more than the “perfect” question at helping an interviewee succeed.

Interviews are a performance

Even though we don’t think about it this way, interviews are a performance. The next time you watch a great interview, pay attention. You’ll probably find that the confidence and flow of the delivery far outweighs perfect sentence construction or how many keywords they use.