My writerly background is primarily non-fiction and journalism. As such, I’ve done a lot of interviews. Along this journey I’ve learned a few tricks: one is to approach an interview as a therapist would approach a patient.
In college I took some psychology classes: not to become a therapist but to learn what makes people tick. These classes helped a great deal in this regard and in dealing with people in general.
I found this particularly helpful while I was working with a Smoky Mountain Visitors Guide, for which I was interviewing a different Smoky Mountains region artist each month. The articles were full-page spreads and needed to be in depth and interesting. Artists *can* be kind of high-strung. Here are a few of the tricks I developed.
This should go without saying, but too many of my newspaper buddies from way back got into a habit of gathering only basic information on the folks they were being sent out to interview and figured they’d “play it by ear” once they got rolling. But that can leave you foundering if the rote questions don’t produce anything interesting. Know as much as you can about your subject prior to the interview so you know what aspects of their life or experience you will want to highlight. But remain open-minded: sometimes the side trips prove fascinating.
Be sure you are armed with materials to take accurate (and copious) notes. I prefer a voice recorder to pen and paper because I don’t write all that fast and when I rush it gets sloppy. I feel it’s better to have a complete and accurate record of what was said that I can play back and listen to (over and over if need be), to be sure I got it right. This also allows me to focus on the person I’m interviewing and not on scratching down everything I think is interesting. Others disagree: they say a recorder makes their subject nervous; pen and paper are less intimidating. If you do record, make sure your subject knows he or she is being recorded and some states require a signed release by the subject if a recording is to be used. When you set up the interview ask if it’s OK to record. If not, bring pen and paper.
Put Your Subject at Ease
Begin when you call for the interview. How you approach them initially will set the tone for the interview. Give them no reason for being defensive. Before beginning the interview you may want to break the ice by telling them a little about yourself – not your life story, just enough to know they are in competent hands and you’re not some psycho. Maybe something funny: laughter is a great tension buster. Or you can start by asking some innocuous questions about them or their home or office. Give them a chance to talk casually about themselves, off the record, before you get into the formal interview.
When you begin the interview, actively listen to your subject. Make eye contact as much as possible (this may be difficult if you are taking written notes). Avoid the temptation to think ahead so that you’re not really listening. Occasionally repeating something they said, by paraphrasing it, helps you understand and shows that you are paying attention.
Ask follow-up questions as interesting points come to light; pursue the nuggets that may slip in. These are what will make your interview unique. Also, finding some aspect that interests you will make an interview on even the most boring topic more enjoyable for you and your subject.
Don’t Cut Them Off
One of the things that annoys me most about television interviewers is the way they’ll ask their subject a question, then two sentences into the response they’re jumping back in with more questions. Obviously they’re trying to steer the conversation in a particular direction, to get them to say what they want them to say as quickly as possible. Some people will ramble on and on and you will need to gently redirect them; but for a proper interview, let them explain themselves – then edit.
Sometimes you will ask a question and the subject does not respond immediately. Do not fear the silence; do not quash their answer by trying to “clarify” your question. Give them time to reflect and give you a composed answer. If they’re glaring at you, not reflecting, you might want to move on with your next question.
Don’t Tell Them What They Think
In a session with a real therapist, I was impressed with how helpful asking non-leading questions can be. Instead of saying, “So you think bla-bla-bla” she’d ask me questions that got me to think about what I thought. She never told me what I thought, or what I should think. It’s a great way to draw people out without any risk of making them feel judged.
Interview, Not Judge
Try not to go in with a head full of assumptions. Know enough to know who it is you’re talking to and why, but don’t think you know everything there is to know. If that were the case, there would be no point in the interview. You are there to discover something new.
If something comes out that you find objectionable, do your best to remain neutral and passive. If you explore that topic do so in as unbiased a manner as you can. Many interviewers will, rather than forming pointed questions, simply say, “Tell me more about that.” And let them talk.
Do Be Empathetic
When interviewing a subject who has gone through a bad experience, expressing empathy for them will put them at ease – but it must be genuine. Empathy is one of the most difficult emotions to fake well. If you are unsympathetic, just keep the tone professional and explore their story.
If your questioning produces anger or withdrawal in your subject, the interview will be over if you don’t diffuse it quickly. If there is truth in the subject’s lash-back at you, admit to it, remain calm, then redirect. You may need to change the subject entirely, but often you can approach the same subject from a different direction by gently asking why that question produced such a reaction. Often, it will have taken them by surprise too.
Report, don’t fictionalize. Nothing will get you shunned (or sued) faster than a reputation for twisting the facts or being sloppy. You don’t have to tell everything they said, but what you tell must be factual.
I‘ve been interviewed for television twice. In both cases the lengthy interview was edited down to a few minutes for prime-time exposure. One was well-done and retained the kernel of what I said. The other was so hacked that the real meaning of what I said was lost in several instances.
As writers we are often students of human nature, people watchers, and generally more in tune with why people do what they do than others are. This skill will give you an edge in interviewing people. Even if you’re a novelist who has never done any form of journalism, you may find yourself particularly apt at this type of writing. You probably go through a similar process with the characters of your novels. Want to branch out, earn some extra cash? Try doing interviews for newspapers and magazines.
If you are doing interviews, do you have any favorite tricks to share?