The all-important interview

By Joel M. Vancemixer and headphones

I once worked with a fellow who did live television and often the show involved interviews. My friend had unshakable faith that he could wing it, could sit down with anyone and do an interview.
He was wrong. He would ask questions that could only be answered “yes” or “no” and then there would be horrible pauses while he frantically struggled to think of something else to ask and flop sweat poured off both him and the interviewee.
It should go without saying that you don’t ask “yes” or “no” answer questions, but it’s all too common. Instead of asking, “Do you think bismuth shot is an acceptable substitute for lead?” ask “Tell me about bismuth shot compared to lead.”
Interviewing is an art, not a casual part of the communication process. Think about it: everything you produce involves an interview, even if it is one done with yourself. You have to have a complete story and the only way to get it is to ask the right questions.
You want the answers to the Fab Six: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. To get there, you must prepare.

  1. Know what you want to find out.
  2. Research the subject(s) thoroughly – use Google, the library, your own collection of reference books (you do have one, don’t you?).
  3. Prepare a list of every conceivable question. Ask your mate what he or she would like to know.
  4. Talk to those who know your interviewee and ask them what questions you should ask. Find out as much as you can before the interview and it will be a breeze.

If you do have questions that are sensitive, save them for later in the interview when you’ve established a rapport with the subject. While confrontation may work for Mike Wallace, the Barbara Walters cover-’em-up-with-honey approach is likely to be more productive. Incidentally, she wrote a book many, many years ago titled “How to Talk to Practically Anybody About Practically Anything” which is a primer on interviewing. Look for it on Bookfinder.com and get a copy.
You can interview over the phone but it’s always better to do it in person. If you do a phone interview you can record it if you either get the person’s permission or if you live in one of the states where as long as one person (you) knows the interview is being recorded it’s legal. Be careful about this. You could be breaking the law.
Always remember it is your interview, not the subject’s. Conduct it either at your place or on neutral territory – a coffee shop, bar, whatever. You are in charge and don’t forget it.
If you set up an interview with someone you don’t know introduce yourself with your qualifications for doing the story and say, “I’d like to chat with you for an hour or so. When can we get together?” Once you’ve established the time, then you suggest the place.
Tape record the interview and if the subject is nervous about being recorded, say, “I’m not good at taking notes, so this is my notebook.” Maintain eye contact as you start the recorder and ask a question and the subject invariably will forget the recorder.
Make sure the recorder has fresh batteries and isn’t set on “pause.” Make sure the little wheels are turning or that it is recording if it’s digital. Check sound levels beforehand. Also take notes, which (1) indicates interest in what the subject is saying, and (2) lets you highlight items you definitely want in the story. Use a pencil and have a backup.
Don’t be limited to your prepared questions. If something comes up that’s interesting follow up and ask the subject to elaborate.
Nod to show interest – it doesn’t mean you necessarily agree, but that you are getting what is being said. Perhaps the most important tip on interviewing is what I call the Pregnant Pause. If an answer seems short or incomplete, nod as if you expect more and let the silence drag on. People can’t stand this and unless they are very experienced at evading answers, will rush to fill the silence with more talk.
If the subject gives an evasive or incomplete answer, come back to it later on and ask the same question, perhaps in a different way: “Now, you said a while ago that such-and-such. I’m not sure I understood that. Explain what you meant.”
In our business we rarely have an adversarial interview, but on those occasions where you try to pin someone down on a sensitive subject, tape it so there can be no argument later on as to what was said. If it is a friendly interview and the subject says something dumb, I have no problem with letting the person see the copy and suggest changes – doesn’t mean I’ll accept them, but I do want the story to be accurate and I don’t want to embarrass the subject unless he or she deserves it.
Always finish an interview by saying, “Is there anything we haven’t covered, anything you’d like to add?”
If you’ve done it right, the answer is, “I think we’ve covered everything and then some.”  ◊
joel-vanceJoel Vance is a freelance writer, book author and columnist. He is a past president and historian of OWAA and a recipient of the Ham Brown, Excellence in Craft and Jade of Chiefs awards.
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