I want to get video of the uncomfortable keynote with Mark Zuckerberg and Business Week’s Sarah Lacy at SXSW today so I can use it as an object lesson in my journalism classes about how not do conduct an interview. My lecture:
Lacy’s biggest mistake was not knowing her audience. Here she had the founder of one of the most innovative, game-changing, and so-far-successful companies of the age — the age that is being created and celebrated by the audience here. But she could not, in the words of one frustrated audience member, ask anything interesting — not to them. Zuckerberg is a man of few words who doesn’t speak often and so there was a great opportunity to find out what this audience wanted to know.
How could Lacy have known that? By asking the audience. If I were up there, I’d have blogged a week before asking SXSWers what I should discuss with Zuckerberg. And if things still went sour with my own questions, I’d have opened up the discussion to the floor with the simple question: What do you want to know?
Next was the way she treated Zuckerberg. I have no doubt that she likes and respects him and that she was trying to put him at ease because he has been shy and nervous in such settings. But she condescended to him, talking about his age too much and about his flop-sweat when she first met him. In a magazine story for people who don’t know this man and what he has done, that might come off as quaint (it’s a magazine kind of observation — a way to show off, frankly). But, again, Lacy didn’t know her audience and by diminishing Zuckerberg it only seemed to insult him and this crowd. The equivalent would be interviewing Bill Gates at an industry conference and calling him weird who fidgets too much and has bad hair, like everyone in the room.
Worse, in her effort to charm Zuckerberg, Lacy came off like Mrs. Robinson. That was embarrassing for her and us.
She pulled some basic mistakes in interviewing. She interrupted him. The first minute of the conversation, he wanted to talk about people using Facebook to organize against Colombian guerrillas — a fascinating story — and she didn’t let him finish, trying to show that she already knew this. The real mistake was that she wasn’t listening.
Another good indication that she didn’t understand that her role was to let him have his say was when she announced that Facebook was opening in French tonight. That’s what he was going to say.
She rambled on to the point that Zuckerberg had to suggest that she ask a question. Definitely not a good sign in an interview.
She was inserting herself too much into the hour. The audience didn’t care a bit about her — or the book she plugged a few times (said a tweet: ‘Can we short her book?’). They were here for him.
When she tried to get tough with Zuckerberg, it came off as clumsy: “Come on, it’s not worth $15 billion.” And this once again shows that she wasn’t aware of the audience. They didn’t care about a business story. They wanted stories about technology and society. When the audience finally got to ask the questions and got tough on Zuckerberg themselves, they pressed him on why he doesn’t have a decent search on Facebook messaging — to which he agreed and vowed to fix it. In this crowd, that’s news.
When it became obvious that the audience was hostile to her — cheering Zuckergerg when he told her to ask a question — she acted hurt, as if this hour was about her. Worse, she told us how tough her job was. It wasn’t tough. It was a privilege and she was blowing it. And at the end, when she said that people should send her an email telling her what went wrong, she was so 1994; she didn’t understand that the people in the crowd were already coalescing in Twitter and blogs into an instant consensus. Oh, if only there’d been a back-channel chat projected on the screen beside her. Then, she could have seen.
After it was over, Lacy did go to Twitter and left this message: “in my book, getting mark to publicly admit to the yahoo deal, address beacon, and give news on changes in the platform and france equals successful interview”
Still, she wasn’t listening. Now, instead of asking Zuckerberg questions, she should again have been asking the audience. Instead she was telling them, NYTimes-like, what the story really was, not the one they saw.
At the end of it all, I have no doubt that Lacy is an experienced and talented journalist, that she respects Zuckerberg, that she was trying to put him at ease, and that she was going after the stories she found interesting. But that’s the essence of her problem: She didn’t stand back and remind herself that her job was to enable a conversation not with her but with the crowd about what they found interesting. And when she failed at that, the audience could tell her, in Twitter, blog posts, hoots from the audience, and even cartoons: