Among my many aggravations, none is more constantly inview than bad interviewing. Not interviewing for a job, but interviewing in an information-gathering, journalistic sense. Bad examples appear every day on TV, radio and the Internet. Most of these talking heads don’t know how to conduct an interview. They make me want to holler.
In my dual roles as newspaper editor and professor of news writing, I taught and coached many inexperienced and aspiring journalists in how to conduct interviews. Not so they would become “gotcha” interviewers like Mike Wallace, but to help them come away from each interview with useful information and catchy quotes for their articles. But interviewing people is hard, and it’s a hard skill to develop. An interviewer own confidence and personality are part of it, but there are also mechanics involved.
I recently noticed many of the points I had stressed in my classes and training sessions were reiterated in a 2014 New Yorker article by Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee, who regularly contributes essays about writing to that magazine. A few of the interviewing tips we have in common (with McPhee’s words in quotes) are:
- “Use a tape recorder, yes, but maybe not as a first choice — more like a relief pitcher.”
- “Don’t rely on memory.” Regardless of how you’ve accumulated notes or recordings from an interview, transcribe them and flesh them out as soon as possible afterwards.
- “Make clear what you are doing and who will publish what you write.” In other words, don’t take notes surreptitiously, when you think no one is looking. Do it openly, and be up front about who you are and why you are asking these questions.
- “Display your notebook as if it were a fishing license. While the interview continues, the notebook may serve other purposes, surpassing the talents of a tape recorder. As you scribble away, the interviewee is, of course, watching you. Now, unaccountably, you slow down, and even stop writing, while the interviewee goes on talking. The interviewee becomes nervous, tries harder, and spills out the secrets of a secret life, or maybe just a clearer and more quotable version of what was said before. Conversely, if the interviewee is saying nothing of interest, you can pretend to be writing, just to keep the enterprise moving forward.”
- “If doing nothing can produce a useful reaction, so can the appearance of being dumb.”
I’ve got a few a few more suggestions about interviewing.
- An interviewer’s most valuable questions are follow-ups to the previous question that elicit further response: For example, “why?” “how?” “what did you mean?” or “could you please repeat that?”
- Keep questions short while encouraging longer responses by asking the followup questions above.
- Never suggest an answer with your question. For example, the question “How huge was that decision?” leads the responder to the prescribed answer. Questions should let the interviewee supply the descriptions, not merely agree with or refute the questioner’s.
- Make an interview as conversational as possible. Look at the interviewee. Don’t let note-taking bog it down.
- Before the interview, find out as much as you can about the person you’re interviewing.
- Have at least a short list of questions ready when you start, and always be ready with the next question. Don’t allow dead air.
- If you have questions that might irritate the interviewee, save them for last.
- Don’t ask stupid questions.
McPhee also agrees with my personal philosophy on editing quotes to enhance their conciseness and communication without altering their content or meaning. “Once captured, words have to be dealt with,” he writes. “You have to trim and strengthen them to make them transliterate from the fuzziness of speech to the clarity of print. Speech and print are not the same, and a slavish presentation of recorded speech may not be as representative of a speaker as dialogue that has been trimmed and straightened. Please understand: you trim and straighten, but you do not make it up.”
To bring that kind of editing sense and sensibility to your own documents, you probably need a professional. Hire an editor.