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.