Sarah Lacy was not as bad as Miss Teen South Carolina: Reflections from observing a train wreck

I have no doubt Sarah Lacy (I’m seeing it spelled Lacey, but L-a-c-y is how she spells it, so I assume that’s correct) is a very talented reporter, but as an on-stage interviewer, today she set the benchmark for remarkable badness. And I say that as someone who has once or twice conducted a remarkably bad on-stage interview. I also say it as someone in the audience who was sitting in awe as it was taking place. I say it as someone who gets so uncomfortable when I see people doing badly on stage, that I often have to leave the room to avoid seeing them bomb. I say it as someone who couldn’t leave the room because what was taking place was so mesmerizing in its awesome badness.

It’s not an easy job — as Sarah screamed at the audience today after finally realizing how bad the audience thought she was doing. However, it’s a job, and if you’re going to do it, you should at least understand your role.

From my rough notes of her interview of Mark Zuckerberg at South by Southwest, you can see I sensed a train wreck was occurring about two questions into the now infamously bad session. Unfortunately, the drama of the poor performance (or, better said, the dramatically poor performance) by the interviewer has drowned out anything of news value that may have been revealed by Zuckerberg.

As it is destined to become one of the most memorable horrible on-stage interviews, I thought I’d chime in with what I think took place. More importantly, I thought I’d throw in a few thoughts — and recommendations for Sarah and other on-stage interviewers (including me):

1. I disagree with the suggestion by some that the audience turned on her because of her gender. Despite her twirling of hair and flirtatious, giggling, silly manner, I don’t believe that her imitation of an airhead ditz is what angered the audience.

2. I disagree with some who have suggested that she did bad because she is not a geek. The questions she asked Zuckerberg were not the problem. Indeed, she probably asked some good questions. I guess she did — but I’m sure it was hard for him to understand the questions that were hidden somewhere in the OMG, I’m so tight with you, speak.

3. Sarah seemed to think her job was to break a story — to get Zuckerberg to say something he’d not said before. On Twitter, post-debacle, she claims she did get him to admit something or another.

4. Her first mistake was to think anyone in the audience knew who she is.

5. 24 hours earlier, Stephen Johnson, in a keynote in which he got co-billing — and deserves it as he’s a best-selling author and tech entrepreneur — nevertheless played the role of interviewer in his conversation with Henry Jenkins. In other words, everyone did care about what he might have to say, but he adroitly played the role of appreciative and curious interviewer. And what resulted was a near perfect session.

6. On-stage interviews are not where you try out the ambush, embarrassing or rude questioning techniques. It’s not where you bounce around from flirtatious first-date questions to Mike Wallace showing up at your front door questions.

7. When you are conducting an interview on stage — just like on air with a microphone — you don’t keep saying “uh-huh” and “yeah” all through the answers. Close your mouth and let the interviewee finish an answer before making any sound that will be picked up by the microphone.

8. I am writing this suggestion for myself as much as for today’s interviewer or anyone else: No one cares about how clever, witty or knowledgeable you are if that wit and knowledge drags a question out for over 20 seconds. (I may be wrong with the length, but you get the idea.)

9. Listen to the answers. Listen. Shut up. Listen. Then and only then can you ask the next question.

10. When you’ve got thousands of smart people in the audience, shut up and let them ask the questions.

11. If you bomb in front of 2,000 people and 1,500 of them have blogs and Twitter accounts, don’t try to convince them that you didn’t bomb.

12. Bombing in front of 2,000 people is, in the big scheme of things, nothing. Embrace it. Learn from it. Be glad that people now know who you are and how to spell your name.

Bonus link: Jeff Jarvis has a lecture for his students on how not to conduct and interview.

  • http://fourlittlebees.profy.com Cyndy Aleo-Carreira

    I disagree that it wasn’t at least partly because of her gender. Eric from MBL points out in the Wired article that if it was Forbes lobbing softballs and trying to draw him out, no one would have blinked.

    There were other people at the session who were also on Twitter who didn’t see the same issues. The mob mentality was very much in force, from what I could see, because let’s face it, if you think Scoble is god and he says it’s going south, then darn it, it’s going south and he’ll drag his throng with him.

    On top of that, even with a veteran on-air personality like Leslie Stahl, let’s face it; the guy is NOT a good interview. What amazes me is how many people watched that 60 Minutes mess and forgot all about it today. If that had been Gates or Ballmer or ANY public-savvy CEO up there, do you think the same thing would have happened? No. I think that Sarah Lacy quickly became a scapegoat for the bigger problem of Zuckerberg’s public personna. If the man can’t take a question and run with it for at least 5 minutes without being led, he shouldn’t be out doing keynotes.

  • Rex Hammock

    Cyndy, who are these people who were on Twitter and didn’t see the same issues? Were they in the hall? Please, if there was someone in the hall who didn’t see the same issues, I’d like for them to enlighten me.

    I didn’t have Twitter on during the keynote. I did not have wifi. You can read from my notes real-time what I was thinking without seeing anything Scoble or anyone else was saying. I was also in the exact same hall one hour later when Kathy Sierra, a female, was treated like a rockstar — because she is. I have not idea what Eric is talking about — and it was his post that I am referring to.

    As for whether or not Zuckerberg should be out doing keynotes — He actually did a decent job in the context of a strange circumstance in which he and the audience were confused.

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  • http://www.fixinsupper.com lcreekmo

    Cyndy, I actually think Rex has been quite charitable in his comments here and in his other blog post on http://www.hammock.com/sxsw2008. Personally, I had quite an issue with the flirty-hair-twirling thing — because it made a person who’s clearly an intelligent, smart, savvy woman look like an absolute ditz.

    I was in the hall for the interview and didn’t realize until I read writeups afterward that indeed, many of Lacy’s topics had actually been pretty decent, because the manner in which she approached them negated their effect and let Zuckerberg dodge the intent. I agree, he’s hard to interview. I wish Lacy had literally written out every word she wanted to say and stuck to a script. I don’t know — I’m assuming a lot of what we saw was due to nerves — but despite Zuckerberg’s reticence, I think Lacy could have approached the interview in a different way and given us a much better result.

  • Keith Devlin

    Thanks for your write up on Sarah Lacy’s interview mistakes. Your comment about Stephen Johnson playing the roll of “appreciative and curious interviewer” nailed the entire issue for me. That’s what Lacy should have done. Well said.

  • http://www.ConnectivHealth.com Steve NeSmith

    I was seated second row at the Zuckerberg Keynote. Lacy conducted the worst interview I’ve ever witnessed. I get the whole this-is-SXSW-and-everything-is-less-formal vibe but a high-school kid would’ve done a better job. She was obviously more into herself than the billionaire visionary she was interviewing. Considering the circumstances Zuckerberg did a great job of pulling the interview out of the ditch that Lacy drove it into – several times. Facebook’s PR exec, who was sitting across the aisle from me, would be smart to limit Lacy’s involvement on future public events involving the young Facebook CEO.

  • Rex Hammock

    RE: Facebook’s PR and Lacy. My complaint is with her lack of on-stage interviewing skills. Who knows, she may likely be a wonderful writer and her book may be a bestseller (which is, ironically, more likely after yesterday’s train wreck). I think that Facebook’s PR folks should be clever and find a way to make this a good thing for them, and if it works for them, for Lacy as well — and cutting off Lacy’s access doesn’t necessarily sound like a good thing.

  • http://www.markevanstech.com Mark Evans

    Rex,

    Good advice, Rex. I find it difficult to believe the Lacy performed so badly by not fulfilling her role as it was scripted. What she was trying to achieve – other than perhaps generate some notoriety and publicity for her upcoming book – is a mystery.

    If there’s a positive to come out of SXSW-Gate, it’s that conference organizers need to select their interviewers and moderators as closely as they select their keynotes and panelists.

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