Interviewers on Interviewing
Ask “What Happened?”
The best thing to ask: “What happened?” Then he’s got to tell me what happened, from his perspective: how he feels about what happened.
—Larry King (CNN Larry King Live), “Interviewing Tips”
The fundamental question of the story is, “And then?” It’s our job to keep that tension going, so people will want to find out what happened next.
—Neal Conan (NPR Talk of the Nation), “The Art of the Interview”
A story in its purest form is somebody saying this happened, and that lead to this next thing, and the next thing; one thing following another. The Power of the anecdote is so great. No matter how boring the material is, if it is in story form, there’s suspense in it: It feels like something’s going to happen.
—Ira Glass (PRI This American Life), “On Storytelling” (video)
“Beaver Attack” CBC Radio (1997)
Markus Schwabe asks trucker Penn Powell: “What happened?” (6:17):
Be, what I call, a generous listener. I think the persons who are the best interviewers are the persons who listen most generously. If you listen to what the guest is saying to you, I promise you, they will always tell you where to go next.
After you get that first question out, to get the conversation going, listen to what they’re telling you. If you listen generously, they will always tell you where to go. And before they know what they’ve opened up and started telling you stuff that they had no plan to tell you.
—Tavis Smiley (PBS), “How to Get More From Your Subjects” (video below)
Keep the Conversation Flowing
- Listen closely. Look your storyteller in the eyes. Smile. Stay engaged.
- Stick with the good stuff. Try to keep to the topics that move you. If the current topic isn’t what you wanted to put on tape, gently steer the conversation in another direction.
- Ask emotional questions. Asking “How does this make you feel?” often elicits interesting responses. Don’t be afraid to ask.
- Respect your subject. If there is a topic that your interview partner doesn’t want to talk about, respect his or her wishes and move on.
- Be curious and honest, and keep an open heart. Great things will happen.
—StoryCorps “Great Questions”
- Research: Make sure you do your homework, your preparation. That way the interviewee will definitely respect you.
- Open Questions: You’ve got to get good answers from these people. Why, what, how, who, when, those kind of things.
- Listening: Make sure you listen to the answers that your interviewee is giving you, because then you can get a sensational scoop, something quirky, something that adds extra value to your interview.
My former boss and idol for many years as a viewer, Jack Paar, called me before I started doing a talk show and said, “Hey kid, don’t do interviews.” And I said, “What do I do, then, sing or just read to the audience?” And he said, “No, interviews are boring. That’s just ‘What’s your favorite color?’ and that’s dull. Make it a conversation.” And that’s almost the best secret. Throw your notes aside, if necessary.
—Dick Cavett, “The Art Of The Interview: How To Elevate A Q&A”
I want to distinguish quickly between an interview and a conversation. An interview suggests to me that you have a blue card that you’ve written your questions on and no matter what the guest says to what your questions are you go to the next question on your blue card to you got your eight or nine or ten questions. You ask; they answer; you ask; they answer. That’s an interview and that’s boring to me.
What I think is far better is a conversation. Just as you would talk to anyone on the street, or the school or wherever you meet people, you ask a question. They say something, and whatever they say triggers something else.
But it’s not scripted. It’s not laid out in that way. A conversation is what we’re used to, and I think what works best in terms of a media approach to getting the most out of people.
—Tavis Smiley (PBS), “How to Get More From Your Subjects”
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?” Works for me.
—Bob Edwards, “Interviewing Performing Artists… & Others: A Practical Guide”
Shut your mouth. Wait. People hate silence and rush to fill it. Ask your question. Let them talk. If you have to, count to 10. Make eye contact, smile, nod, but don’t speak. You’ll be amazed at the riches that follow. “Silence opens the door to hearing dialogue, rare and valuable in breaking stories,” says Brady Dennis of The Washington Post.
—Chip Scanlon (Poynter.org How-To’s), “How journalists can become better interviewers”
You can hold someone with silence and make them go on. You tend to feel you need to fill all dead air. There are times when if you just say no more than “uh-huh,” and pause, they’ll add something out of a kind of desperation that turns out to be pretty good. Let them sweat a little and then they’ll come up with something that they were perhaps not going to say. Because they too can have a sense of “time’s a-wasting here.” You’re supposed to fill that time with talk, but there’s no law that says you can’t stop every now and then and let a strategic silence fall.
—Dick Cavett, “The Art Of The Interview: How To Elevate A Q&A”
I tried not to say anything in the interview… If possible, nothing.
I developed a style of interviewing where I tried not to say anything in the interview. I tried to say very, very few things… If possible, nothing. And I was very proud of the interviews that I had done where you can barely hear my voice on the tape. The interviews would go on for hours and hours and hours and hours and it would be people talking.
—Errol Morris “The Bedrock of Language”
In the Yupik language and culture, there are no questions. One does not ask a question. It’s rude. Very rude. As in, you will never get an answer out of anyone rude. So, you hang out, and maybe just maybe, in the course of hanging out and talking and listening, some answers to whatever you are wondering might be forthcoming. It’s like asking your kid how school was? “Fine.” You get nothing. End of conversation. But, instead if you start telling your kid how lousy or great YOUR day was, you won’t even get a chance to finish before he’ll want to jump in with some complaint or triumph of his own.
So, I cut my teeth as a reporter in a community where questions were prohibited. I learned patience. I learned how to listen and how to ask questions with my eyes. I learned the importance of letting the tape roll through the silences. More importantly, I left that village thinking that every interview is a gift, that when someone speaks into my microphone, they are giving me something that I should treat with respect, even if it’s just an opinion about farmed salmon. Oh I know you are groaning and rolling your eyes but I’m talking ordinary people here.
—Elizabeth Arnold (NPR), “On Interviewing”
Become comfortable with your equipment. If you are, everyone else will be. Check, clean and test all your equipment before you go out. Put in fresh batteries. Make test recordings. Be over-prepared. Be a Boy Scout. Have everything set up before you walk in. Sit in the car (or the subway station, or the bushes) to load and label your first tape, prepare your next tapes for fast changes, set your levels, etc.
Remember eye contact. Don’t let the mic be the focus — occupying the space between you and the person you’re talking to so you have to stare through it. I usually begin by holding the mic casually, as though it’s unimportant. Sometimes I’ll rest it against my cheek to show it has no evil powers. I might start off with an innocuous question (“Geez, is this as bad as the smog ever gets out here?”), then slowly move the mic, from below, into position at the side of the person’s mouth, but not blocking eye contact. You’ll find your own way of being natural with the mic, but it is important.
Don’t be afraid to ask the same thing in different ways until you get an answer you’re satisfied with. Remember you can edit the beginning and ending of two answers together, but be sure to get the ingredients. If a noise interferes with a good bit of tape, try to get it again. You can blame it on the machine, but it might be better just to wrap the conversation back to the same place so you don’t get the quality of someone repeating himself.
For repeat answers or more enthusiasm, try: “What?!” or “You’re kidding!” or “Really??” Remember the question: “Why?”, especially following a yes or no response. Don’t forget the preface: “Tell me about…” Let people talk. Allow silence. Don’t always jump in with questions. Often, some truth will follow a silence. Let people know they can repeat things — that you’re not on the air — it’s ok to screw up. And remember to offer something of yourself. Don’t just take. Think of the listener’s innocence; ask the obvious, along with the subtle.
—Jay Allison (Transom), “The Basics”
I’ll get pretty close the subject. I like to get in their personal space, frankly, break that wall. And look the subject in the eyes the whole time. Lean forward and listen.
“Audio Interview Basics: MediaStorm Mini-Lesson #001”, MediaStorm Online Training
Getting an interview with someone is like asking your good-looking cousin to go out with a friend of a friend on a blind date: you must approach the subject Just So. Fortunately, there are so many ways of approaching him. You can phone him, write him, telegram him, stalk him, badger him, plead with him, pay him, or woo his secretary. And you needn’t be a celebrity to interview a celebrity — no more than you need be a cab driver to interview a cab driver.
—John Brady, The Craft of Interviewing
You’re there to do a job, and the sooner you acknowledge it, the better it will go. Don’t pussyfoot. Take control. If they’re sitting across a desk, make them sit next to you. If their phone is ringing see if they can turn it off. Never ever, ever, ever, ever let them hold the microphone. It does NOT make them feel more comfortable. And it just insures that you’ll get mic noise. The more certain you are in your behavior, the more comfortable and relaxed they’ll be in the interview. The weird thing is, once you’ve bossed them around enough in the beginning — made them switch seats, turn off their cell phones, scootch closer so you don’t have to hold the mic way out; in short, all the things you wouldn’t do if you were just talking — the more it will sound like a natural conversation in the end. People do forget about the microphone, almost immediately, but only if you acknowledge it in the beginning.
—Alex Blumberg (PRI This American Life), “Transom: On Interviewing”
Politely take control. Once you’re in and you’ve said hello, it’s important to ask for what you want — the best recording situation. You’ll need to tell people what will work for you.
- Avoid kitchens. Refrigerators are bad news — too noisy. And, kitchens tend to be “echo-y.” Usually the family room is best for a recording. Carpeting, cushy furniture, and curtains help absorb sound.
- Become annoying, politely. Ask to turn off televisions, radios, and cell phones. Keep an ear out for noisy computers. And, in some cases, you’ll need to ask to close windows or turn off air conditioning.
- Rearrange furniture. If turning everything off didn’t get you kicked out, now redecorate. It’s important to sit close to your interviewee, usually directly across or catty-corner. I want to be so close to someone I can rest my elbow on my knee or the arm of a chair and still have the mic close enough for an intimate recording. Often this requires moving furniture. I can’t tell you how many coffee tables and chairs I’ve moved. And, if I’m in an office, I nearly always ask people to get out from behind their desk. (By the way, I try to never interview someone on a couch. I find it uncomfortable because of the odd angle you have to sit at to be close and able to look them in the eye.)
This all seems like a lot to ask a stranger. It feels like an imposition — an invasion, even. But, I always couch my requests this way. “I want to make sure you sound good. Can we…” As soon as you say, “I want you to sound good” people will accommodate your requests because they want to sound good, too. And, I say “we” because I think of my interviewee as a collaborator in creating the best possible conditions for recording.
—Rob Rosenthal (Transom Story Workshop), “Before The First Question”
One of the first skills Radio Rookies learn in our workshops is how to conduct interviews with people on the street, aka: “Vox Pop”, short for vox populi, a Latin phrase meaning “voice of the people.”
- Be open to possibilities, but prepare questions before you begin.
- Stay in control of the situation.
- Introduce yourself and get the interviewee’s name, age (and contact info, if you can).
- Don’t be afraid to ask someone to repeat something.
- Ask open-ended questions. Avoid Yes-or-No questions — they lead to boring answers.
- Ask for explanations/ follow-up questions.
- Don’t talk over your interviewee. Let them finish completely before you jump in with the next question.Don’t be afraid of silence.
- Try to ask a question several different ways if you’re not getting a good answer.
- At the end of an interview always ask: “Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to say?” “Do you have any questions for me?
—Radio Rookies, “DIY: Educator’s Guide to Teaching Interviewing Skills”
It’s not easy to hold a microphone up to somebody’s mouth. To do it well you have to stand close to the person and stick the microphone though the bubble of personal space surrounding the person. It’s kind of rude, in a way. Sort of uncomfortable for both you and the interviewee, especially if you’re nervous and don’t have any confidence in what you’re doing or why.
It’s a lot easier to violate a person’s personal space if you remember you don’t really have a choice. If you hold the microphone a safe and comfortable distance from the person’s mouth then the recording will suck and you’ll have wasted the person’s time and your own as well. But if you act like you know what you are doing then the interviewee will probably relax.
—Scott Carrier, Signal-to-Noise
Into the Quotes
“Sometimes I think it’s another sign of the sad necessity of our crowded, lonely lives,” suggests George Garrett, “an urgent. hopeless reaching out to touch something real, a deep hunger for something authentic when everything seems false, a desire to believe at least in the possibility of the naked truth. And we seem to know, to realize that these people, the characters we encounter in the various forms the interview takes, are really very much like us, not any wiser or braver or more virtuous, not even smarter or more skilled at whatever it is they do, but maybe more clever, certainly luckier than the rest of us.”
Interviewing is travel, meeting all kinds of people, quenching curiosities. Interviewing is a celebrated, enigmatic woman sitting back and saying. “OK, go ahead. Ask me anything.” Interviewing is someone you have never heard of (but of whom your editor has said: “Get him!”) saying, through the coolness of a call from his secretary, “Mr. Hagendorf is too busy to talk with you today, and he’s leaving for the Philippines tomorrow.” Interviewing is, above all, the unexpected. Its joy is not unlike what Gloria Steinem once said of writing in general: “It’s the only thing that passes the three tests of métier: I) When I’m doing it, I don’t feel that I should be doing something else instead; 2) it produces a sense of accomplishment and, once in a while, pride; and 3) it’s frightening.”
The interviewer seeks truth — but his work does not require the creative surges of art. nor does it possess the certitude of science. And, unlike the scientist, the interviewer has no “rules” that aren’t broken daily by fine writers getting great quotes. “There is no clinical skill, really,” says Alex Haley, Playboy interviewer and author of Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. “I just use all the things I can think of from my experiences.”
The only rule to remember is this: be flexible. Asking questions is, after all, an unpredictable and exhilarating pursuit.
—John Brady, The Craft of Interviewing
Get into the quotes. Ask tough questions. Cajole the interviewee. Joke with the interviewee.
If I had to give just one piece of advice to beginning reporters about the single fastest way they could improve their stories, it’d be to get themselves into the quotes. Asking tough questions. Cajoling the interviewee. Joking with the interviewee. Thinking out loud and chatting with the interviewee. The daily reporting on public radio would be so much more fun to listen to, and so much more informative about the character of the interviewees, if there were more of this.
In the end, it doesn’t come down to asking the one big $6,000 question. It’s more like you have to imagine what it would be like to be in your interviewee’s position, to have had their experiences, and you get them to elaborate on that. That’s all. And you ask stuff you’re curious about, that’s important too.
I really loved this one question I heard Terry Gross ask the magician Ricky Jay, who does whole stage shows of card tricks. “Is the stuff happening that we don’t see — the backstage stuff of a card trick — even more interesting than the stuff we do see?” She asked. “And are you ever tempted to show that part, because what’s going on is so cool?”
What I loved was how deeply she was imagining what it must be like to be him. And she got a great answer from it. It was a revealing moment. That’s all you have to do. Imagine your way through your interviewee’s experience and what might be interesting about it.
—Ira Glass, “What Is/Isn’t a Story?”
Transom Grads: Interviewing Insights
How to ask difficult questions when doing an interview: When someone vaguely responds by saying, for instance, “…and after college I went through some really hard stuff, but now here I am.” It’s usually my nature to let that rest, to not ask the person to go back or elaborate, especially if they have moved forward in their story. But, I have learned often people are leaving little invitations for you to ask deeper harder questions. Not everybody is likely to pour the contents of their hearts, their histories or purses out for you, unless you ask the hard questions. They’ll tell you if they really don’t want to talk about it.
—Erin Cisewski, Ithaca, NY
What surprised me the most about starting down the path to producing my first radio piece is how small a role the technical side of things play. Sure, you need to know how to work your gear and if you wanted to you could spend your life mastering the complexities of audio engineering, but within an hour of turning on our mics and recorders for the first time we were out recording real live humans; a day later — editing.
—Andrew Norton, Toronto, Ontario
When you work in radio, you have three essential tools: a microphone, a recorder, and headphones. On my second day out in the field, I packed up my gear and drove to South Wellfleet to interview a woman named Susan Maggio, the caretaker of three rental cottages. She was overcome with emotion as soon as she started talking. It didn’t matter that I turned on a recorder, sat in her living room for two hours wearing headphones, or held a bulbous looking microphone uncomfortably close to her face.
—Lori Ann Brass, Woodbridge, CT
Asking someone to talk on tape can feel like an imposition, or worse, an intrusion. But really, most people want to talk, and appreciate being heard. Some will refuse — but they don’t bite. There are stories everywhere!
—JP Davidson, Toronto, Canada
Be patient. Sometimes you just have to wait things out before you get to the good stuff. After your subject answers a question, pause before responding or moving on to the next question. If you wait to respond a little longer than you would in a normal conversation, those moments of silence can generate a deeply thoughtful response or reflection.
—Schuyler Swenson, Denver, CO
It’s important to think about whether the story you’re telling will still be enjoyable to new audiences a month, a year, a decade down the road. It’s like a good song — make it universal and people will want to listen again and again. I haven’t gotten there yet, but it’s already worth the effort trying.
—Derek Hawkins, Brooklyn, NY
—Transom Story Workshop