Interviewing 3.0

Virtuoso Voices has compiled interviewing tips from pubradio personalities Bob Edwards, Susan Stamberg, Kurt Andersen, Lisa Mullins, John Diliberto, Lynn Neary and others. It’s all in a 25-page Interviewing 3.0 pdf (296KB).

David Schulman’s (of MITOW) thots on interviewing “feng shui” are revalations. Below are some excerpts from “Interviewing Performing Artists… and Others: A Practical Guide”…

Bob Edwards (The Bob Edwards Show):

Think of it as a conversation and not an interview. If you do an interview, it will likely SOUND like an interview. How do you talk to a friend over a beer? First you LISTEN—and you react to what you’ve heard. If someone tells me something really interesting, I’ll simply say, “Really?” or “No!” Those are little words of encouragement that signal the speaker to continue—and to expand on previous remarks. If your guest is truly confusing, try “Huh?”

Indulge yourself. Ask the question you’ve always wanted to ask. “What’s that lyric about?”

Susan Stamberg (NPR):

Listening to answers is more important than asking the question.

Best question is often the simplest: WHY?

John Diliberto (Echoes:

Don’t be afraid to ask the hard question. They aren’t your friends and you don’t have to worry that they won’t like you or walk out. Although occasionally they do.

Don’t be afraid to ask the obvious question. I got this from listening to Terry Gross, who, besides being a probing interviewer, also knows where the good stories are and isn’t afraid to query into known terrain, because a good story is still a good story, even if it’s been heard before. Chances are, most people still don’t know it. Then find a different angle on that story.

Jim DeRogatis & Greg Kot (Sound Opinions):

Whatever you do, do not compile a list of “great questions” and then ask them in order, one to ten. Have a few questions ready as emergency fallbacks, but listen to what your subject is saying. Be flexible enough to go in the directions that he or she is taking you. Unless…

They’re one of those subjects who just want to sell, sell, sell you. Some interviewees, particularly celebrities on the road with new product to hawk, do not listen to your questions; they simply hit “play” on the tape recorders inside their pea brains. You may ask, “How was the weather in Cannes last week?” and they may answer, “My new album is available in stores now, and the movie opens next week!” So be ready to derail the hype express if warranted.

Do not interrupt the answer. Let the person finish, and then pause a few ticks more before following up, especially if you’re dealing with a sensitive subject. The pregnant pause can be your friend. In a live interview it can be awkward, and often the interviewer rushes to fill in the dead space and then quickly changes the subject, which lets the interviewee off the hook. It’s worth it to wait it out more often than not.

Remember, not all interviewees will be as skilled with words as the interviewer, and they sometimes need time to formulate answers, or to think of what they want to say. Don’t rush them, and above all don’t talk over them. The words you stomp over could valuable, and lead right into your next question. “What inspired that painting?” “That’s such a sad song — did your dog die on the day you wrote that?” But then you have to be prepared if the guest says, “Yes he did, and I still miss him terribly.”

Kurt Andersen (Studio 360):

Try not to embed answers in your questions. This is hard, and I fail at it regularly. But instead of asking, say, “Do you still get scared before you go on stage or at this point are butterflies a thing of the past?” ask, “How do you feel just before you go on stage.” That kind of indeterminacy increases the possibility of a surprising or subtler or truer answer.

Lynn Neary (NPR):

The key to a good interview is listening 2. don’t be afraid to ask a dumb question .. sometimes they yield the best answers… but be careful with this one, you don’t want your guest to think you are not too bright or ill prepared… maybe just a little “naive”. I think Terry Gross is a master at this. You know she walks into an interview better prepared than anyone and then asks one of these disarming little questions that just makes a guest open up.

Listen (did I say that already?)… here is another way of putting it… the interview is not about you, it is about the guest.

Bring real curiosity to the table. There is no substitute.

Faith Salie (Fair Game, Sundance Channel):

Acknowledgements such as “uh-huh,” “I know,” “mm-hmm,” “yes!” all serve to express, “I’m listening, and I’m with you.” And off air that’s a lovely impulse and conducive to conversation, but it turns out to be really distracting to listen to on the radio. Be judicious in giving voice to encouragement. Let your guests know you’re listening not by making “listening sounds” but by letting what they’re saying lead organically to your next question

When you pronounce something wrong, ask your guest to correct you. If you’re about to sneeze, do it. Basically, be transparent. Transparency is so much more engaging than slick, detached, seeming infallibility. Your listener won’t know what’s coming next — that’s compelling. Your guest will feel like she’s talking to a real person and will trust you more.

Resist the urge to fill the void. You’re not a hostess at a dinner party; you’re a midwife to a story. If you allow a moment to suspend (and this can feel like an eternity), you’ll often be amazed at what an artist will reveal.

David Schulman (Musicians in Their Own Words):

Some thoughts on interviewing “feng shui”…

Self-consciousness is the problem, and the challenge is to find a way — and there are so many — to coax the person you’re talking with to a state of mind where they are centered on a “third place.” Not focused on themselves, not focused on you, but caught up in a third thing that they are so engaged with that they forget themselves…

I want the interviewee to be comfortable. I want them to trust me, and confide, and laugh. I want them to share quite personal reflections, stories and memories. For this kind of interview, what I think works best is a conversational dynamic you might diagram as a triangle: two faces able to look at each other, but also able to turn and consider a third place.

Along these lines, I’ve become increasingly aware of the impact of certain mundane things that seem to have nothing to do with doing a good interview. But, sometimes, it seems like mundane things can change a dumb question into an evocative one. Here’s some of what I mean:

  • What are the qualities of the physical space where the interview takes space?
  • How do we sit or stand with respect to the person we’re interviewing?
  • What’s the conversational impact of the way the recording gear is set up?

I want the triangle, not the line — so I try to set up for an interview space with angles and asymmetries in mind. Instead of sitting directly facing someone, I prefer to sit at an angle, and close — almost knee to-knee. I hold the mic close, but off to one side of the person’s mouth — so that there are no pops, and that the image of the mic is only in their peripheral vision as we look at each other eye-to-eye…

The design of many studios often enforces a rather formal distance of 6 feet or more between interviewer and interviewee, and then there’s all the obvious technology of our interrogation business. So, personally, I often prefer to record one-on-one in an apartment or hotel room (unplug the fridge and turn off the AC, of course).

Whether working in a studio or not, here are some questions about the physical space that I think are worth considering:

  • From where the interviewee will sit, what will she see as we talk — something pleasant but unchanging? Something unchanging but unsettling (an unkempt tangle of wires)?
  • Something possibly distracting (a window, a clock, an engineer at a computer screen)?
  • What is the interviewee’s seat like? Try it yourself beforehand.
  • What are the sightlines like? Does anything get in the way of making eye contact? When you do, what will be in the interviewee’s peripheral vision?…
  • Can I orient my recorder so that I can see the meters and lights, but the person I’m interviewing can’t see them? Would it be less distracting if I had a cloth to drape over most of it?
  • Does he seem to talk to me with a different attitude or formality when I put headphones on? What happens if during an interview that’s feeling stiff, I pull my headphones off for a moment, and try to get the conversation going again in a “normal” rhythm — interrupting, going outside the “topic” of the question at hand — without turning off the recorder?

Martin Perlich (The Art of the Interview):

Finally, be assured: a great interview can “make art.” A pretentious formulation, perhaps, for a humble journalistic format currently spreading across all media like a fine mist.

But since there is no agreement on the definition of what Art is, I humbly and provisionally propose the following elucidation: Art is the creation of something beautiful where it didn’t exist before—moving, insightful, socially valuable, exalting, transcendental—all of these. And, yes, a first-rate interview can meet any or all of these requirements, contain all these qualities, deliver all these essentials.

Do what Art does. Look deep into your guests and connect their work with their souls. Yes, souls. Ultimately, communication is about sharing what is True with each other. You, as interviewer, are acting as a conduit between the heart of your Subject and the ear of your audience—those you serve. To practice listening for that Truth yourself, and then passing it on to others, is the purist element of Artistry.

You (post your interviewing tips in comments below):

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