Interrogation by silence, and Trump’s mental Heartbleed

This Trump speech has been widely circulated by now, but two things come to mind. The first of all is that he seems to have the verbal version of the Heartbleed SSL bug. In Heartbleed, the problem is that you can request a keep-alive message of length you specify, with data you provide, but there was no check that the provided data was in fact of the length stated. Therefore, if you declared a much greater length than the actual data you provided, the target machine would keep reading past the end of the buffer it put your message in, sucking up whatever happened to be in working memory nearby and disclosing it to you.

As with the broken server, so with the Donald. He just keeps talking, filling the space, reading from whatever is immediately available in his head. This reminds me of a old journo trick. When I was your actual journalist, I often had to interview pompous and self-important businessmen. I came to realise that one of the best ways of getting news out of them was to shut up. Questioning them tended to make them clam up, refer me away, or complain to my editor. But if I said something as a stimulus, tangential to my real point, and then shut up, they tended to over-answer. And I would let them. When they paused, I would keep stumm, encouraging them to fill the awkward pause with talk.

A lot of people love the sound of their own voices. Self-important SVPs are preferentially selected for this trait and, God knows, get plenty of chances to exercise it. Also, there’s something about having a member of the media around as sycophantic amaneunsis that encourages the behaviour. If you hear something interesting, of course, you can shift gear and probe, but you might as well just take your full notebook back to the newsroom and your best friend, the Google site: command. That said, it’s very important to recognise the slips when they come, not least because that’s how you’ll remember them. Using this method requires you to brief yourself thoroughly.

Trump seems like an extreme case of the self-important sales guy promoted to the C-suite, so I’d recommend this trick to anyone interviewing him. It also has the advantage that it looks subservient and deferential to the crude eye, although it is anything but. This may be a problem for anyone who has to ask him questions on TV, as a live media interview is in part a theatrical performance. Questions must be asked and must be seen to be asked. On the other side of the table, one of the skills of a really good PR person is to recognise when the client is in danger of over-answering and divert them; the one who used to see through me on this was Vodafone’s feline mandarin of a PR director, Bobby Leach, who I think realised I was making a strategy out of it.

3 Comments on "Interrogation by silence, and Trump’s mental Heartbleed"

  1. Possibly the live interview version of this is the sort of slightly supercilious approach that Eddie Mair employs. Though skewering Boris didn’t make him particular popular with his fellow journos.


    1. You need the combination of provocation and pseudo-deference – it’s one of those counterpoint/chiaroscuro/sub-dom/sweet-sour/arm-leg opposition things. The effect comes from getting them talking and letting them talk.

      On the other point, well, that depends if you care.


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