Skewered By a Transcript

Published 12 years, 10 months ago

A little while back, David Poteet of New City Media conducted an interview with me, and the much-edited version is not only a part of today’s UIEtips newsletter, but also published as a full article on the UIE web site.  In it, I lay out my case for why standards-oriented design is a good thing from a non-technical purity-neutral point of view, and use eBay as my Exhibit A for a site that could reap big returns from moving toward using standards.  Ethan has already called the article a “great read”, further cementing his reputation as the whacked-out loon of the standards world.

I have to be honest: reading the full transcription of the interview was a deeply shocking and humbling experience.  In the past, when reading transcripts of news interviews and commentary shows, I’ve winced and clucked over the mangled syntax of the people being transcribed.  False starts, weird shifts, strange commas, unfinished sentences, mind-number repetition, long rambling assaults on syntax and coherence—what was wrong with these people?  Are these the best minds our society can produce?  Can none of them do so much as utter a sentence with a clear point and progression?  How many “you know”s does one person really need?

Then I read the transcription of me, and was utterly horrified.  I sounded exactly like everyone else!  Worse, at times.  Here’s but one example, from a portion of the interview that didn’t get used in the edited version.  (Note that this was conducted before I moved to my current host; so far as I know I’m no longer in danger of hitting any caps.)

Yeah, you’re talking about actually, you know, reducing the bandwidth bill and saving money, in that sense.  I mean, for most people, for my site, MeyerWeb, I’m actually getting close to, I’m having some bandwidth, I’m getting close to hitting a bandwidth ceiling with my current provider —

And then, not five seconds later:

It’s less of an issue because I’m paying more, 30, 40, 50, whatever number of dollars per month and as long as I don’t put up The Matrix Reloaded for people to download and, you know, they use several terabytes worth of data in a month, you know, that’s what I pay.  I don’t have to pay extra bandwidth.  That gets rolled into the cost.

The horror.  The horror!

Thankfully, the published version of the interview makes me sound a good deal less like an epileptic chimp—so you might want to check it out, if you have a few spare minutes.

You know, a lot of people have told me I write like I speak.  Apparently, they were all being very, very kind to me.


  1. Those few occasions when I’ve been interviewed by reporters, it’s been a truly humbling experience. I’m just very glad there were no transcripts in those cases.

    I think it’s the pressure of the interview that does it. I’ve met you and heard you speak at SXSW, and you definitely speak like you write. (That’s a compliment.) But if I’d been a reporter with a recording device, you, like anyone else, would have turned into an epileptic chimp.

    Of course I could never be a reporter, because I myself sound like an epileptic hyena half the time…

  2. That’s so funny and so true. We don’t realise how we really speak. A few weeks ago I said to my wife, who’s not a native English speaker, you start most of the sentences with “Actually…”. After thinking about it, she turns round to me and says yeah I think I picked up the habit from you. I’ve been trying to avoid the A word ever since…

  3. Epileptic chimp or no many of the arguments you have made over the last two and a half years have helped me better understand the difference between “standards oriented” and “standards-based” design strategies. They’ve also helped me convince my employer to develop a working online accessibility policy and web development guide for our site.

    So, on behalf of all the epileptic chimps everywhere, thank you you know, like you know your work has helped a lot you know and that’s why I am saying thank you you know?

  4. HA! And people think it’s easy to do radio or TV live! Just so you know, when people hear you, they don’t register the “you know”‘s and “like”‘s and “um”‘s because they are used, at least in modern Americanized English, as verbal cues to punctuation, as silly as that sounds. Most people append a “you know?” rather than restate a sentence as a question just to save time (or they are truly lazy). People also use “um”, which is dreaded the world over, as a way to pause to think, as in our lives we are asked to move ever more fast, we sometimes forget that careful speech requires careful thought, which generally requires time. And the listeners don’t often hear the “um”‘s because they, too, use them, and subconsciously they understand their meaning.

    That said, there is a trick that I learned from having to do live performances of unscripted and therefore ‘thought up on the spot’ bits. – radio and TV and stage – and it’s DON’T ANSWER IMMEDIATELY!! I know that seems harsh using bold and caps, but it had to be beaten into my head, but it does work. Take a beat. Breath in and out. Then answer. No one thinks less of you for it. In fact, most people will think better of you because you seem calm, learned, wise, and considering. You will also reduce by approximately 75% your use of verbalized non-word-words.

    (p.s. your field question below is “Whast is Eric’s first name?” which I think is wrong, it’s patently not a statement, as ‘Eric’ is Eric’s first name, and it’s not a question, as ‘Whast’ appears to be a noun…)

    (p.p.s. your work in semantic markup helped to propel me and my team at my former company to rather large unscheduled bonuses, which is always nice, so do keep up the excellent and informative work!)

  5. As an epileptic chimp myself, I take great exception to your comparison. Seriously, though, doing an Englih degree many moons ago, we were tasked with taping conversations with friends and transcribing them. I was humbled by my cresta-run whizzes through most of English’s 24 tenses in one sentence, my steamrollering of person/ verb agreements and my slack-jawed reliance on “you know what I mean?” as a conversational gambit.

    The only good thing to come of it was the realisation that I actually become *more* coherent in direct proportion to my beer intake. T

  6. .. still can’t bloody type, though …

  7. Your self analysis does not take into account the listener.

    Verbal pauses like this keep the speaker in charge of the thought while giving everyone a chance to catch up. I really think that if those breaks did not work to aid in the act of communication, they would have been gone from our verbalization techniques by now.

    So many times when I read a complicated thought, I will stop in the middle of a sentence and start again at the beginning of it. I might even start the paragraph over or even start at the beginning of the text again. This behavior cannot be emulated in speech as easily. Restating your thought or starting again with the same exact prose is often considered rude even.

    And then, how many times do you type some text and then remove it and restate it?

    Better for people who critisize those who are attempting to communicate verbally to consider the fact that the only thing that written communications have with verbal communications is that they share the same vocabulary (sometimes).

    I too have been told that I write the same way I speak. I have no clue how to use punctuation anymore either, and I think the two facts are very much related.

    Give yourself and everyone else a break is the best thing in most situations. Especially this one.

  8. Some people just have a knack for proper diction during interviews. Consider John Roberts, answering a question today during his Senate Judiciary Committee hearing:

    Senator, you did not accurately represent my position. The Grove City College case presented two separate questions, and it was a matter being litigated of course in the courts. The universities were arguing that they were not covered at all by the civil rights laws in question simply because their students had federal financial assistance and attended their universities. That was their first argument. The second argument was, even if they were covered, all that was covered was the admissions office and not other programs that themselves did not receive separate financial assistance. Our position, the position of the administration, and, again, that was the position I was advancing, I was not formulating policy, I was articulating and defending the administration position.

    None of the dreaded “filler words”. Totally unscripted, unprepared, unrehearsed — the man is a machine. Some people take comfort in others’ inability to speak in public (Thomas Jefferson’s problems come to mind). Somehow, Roberts’ eloquent words likewise give me comfort.

    Eric, your admission to poor interview-giving doesn’t make you any less of a “CSS-god” in our eyes. I’d be just as bad at it if I were important enough to be interviewed.

  9. Ha ha! I can sympathize with you.
    I recently did my first interview for a podcast (this was in Swedish so I won’t bother you with the link here), and listening to it afterwards (for the short time I can stand hearing my own voice, that is), I realize that the way I use/build sentences in the interview is utterly terrible…

  10. It sounds like you only break down and go verbally-spastic in front of an interviewer, not for prepared talks or places where you feel more at home, like conferences and working-group discussions.

    Give yourself a little credit… after all, many of us would lose verbal coherence in both cases. ;-)

    One question: was the interviewer an attractive female? That’s another factor that often turns men into epilectic chimps. ;-)

  11. Whoops, I just noticed the interviewer’s name… guess “David Poteet” wouldn’t be female unless he/she has an unusual name for a woman… So we can’t let you off on the opposite-gender brain-freeze excuse then, sorry.

    Don’t worry, as Matthew said above, you’re still our “CSS-god,” even if you can’t work your tongue and brain together in an interview. ;-)

  12. I know that feeling. Someone transcribed one of my podcasts, making it a point to quote me word for word. It’s hilariously bad. I sound like my 16-year-old sister IMs.

    http://www.staccatomusic.org/14/2

  13. Sounding like an epileptic chimp is simply a sign that you were thinking about what you were saying. I’ve found that there are only two groups of people who don’t sound scattered in a transcript: used car salespeople and politicians. Do you really want to mistaken for either? :)

    Hope you’re enjoying the Indians’ strong stretch run.

  14. When I edit interviews I intensively edit them so they sound more like they were perceived by the originaly listener — and intended to sound by the speaker — rather than leaving them literally as they happened. I guess I could get in trouble if I misinterpret something, but hey …

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