Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

An introduction to interviews

SOME WOULD-BE writers are so keen to sit down at the keyboard and start typing that they forget that’s actually the second stage of the process. The first is having the best raw material to work with. As the old saying goes, if you have six hours to cut down a tree, spend the first four sharpening your ax. For writers, that preparation often involves interviewing someone.

Here are some tips for newbies on how to get the most out of an interview. I offer them for anyone planning to write an article from their conversation—broadcast is rather different. There the medium can become part of the message, as McLuhan observed. For television or radio, the interviewer may insert themself into the exchange in a way that doesn’t usually happen with print—maybe due to deliberately provoking their subject to draw a dramatic response.

Don’t show your cards. You may need to ask some hard questions, but don’t rush into them. Start with the easy ones to help build up a sense of rhythm and rapport. The best interviews are a kind of dance, and it takes a little while to learn not to step on each other’s toes. Apart from anything else, you’ll have had time to gather some of the nitty-gritty information you will need, should the conversation get terminated abruptly. But you will also have the opportunity to establish some kind of connection that can make the more pointed probing seem less adversarial.

Don’t hide your ignorance. Sometimes people will innocently assume you have greater knowledge of a subject. Sometimes, they’ll suggest it as a way of trying to dominate the interview, as in “Any fool knows that…” Pretending you know something when you don’t will quickly get you into deep water. Suddenly you don’t understand what on earth they are talking about. Just say “no,” you don’t know about this or that, and ask them to explain. Look at it this way: you can seem a bit dumb in front of one person as you interview them, or in front of a whole lot of readers when it becomes clear to them that you didn’t know what was going on.

Don’t ignore inconsistencies. It’s not uncommon for people to contradict themselves when they talk at any length. When they first tell the story, it happened on a Wednesday; later they say no, it was Friday. Don’t just split the difference and write that it was Thursday; truth isn’t the middle ground. Gently pointing out their contradictions and seeking clarification is not being rude to your subject; it’s actually helping them be clear.

Don’t be afraid to wander. You should show up knowing what you want to find out from your subject, but be sure to keep an ear open for the unexpected. They may make a comment that’s a whole other area you need to explore, too. Follow the story. As the old example goes, when the person you’re interviewing about their forthcoming book of poetry says its publication is being delayed because they are going on trial for murder, don’t just ask them the new pub date.

Don’t be afraid to interrupt. While it’s good to have an eye out for the unexpected, bear in mind that there’s a difference between a detour and a diversion. Don’t get lured down a rabbit trail (which may be a tactic of the interviewee to avoid what you really want to discuss). You can interrupt them kindly with something like, “Maybe we can come back to that later, but for now, let me ask you more about…”

Finally, I’d also recommend closing with the single most important question I didn’t ask for far too long in my career.

Photo by tozzer on Foter.com/CC BY-NC-ND

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