1. Before you can get into the meat of an interview, you've got to slip into something comfortable—a conversational mode. At first, it may feel stiff, but if you handle the first few minutes well, this unreal conversation will evolve into a real one. Naturally, a lot depends on the person interviewed and his or her willingness or ability to slide into a genuine conversation with a stranger. I'm talking here only about what you can do from your end to establish this conversational feeling as soon as possible.

Many interviewers take a list of warm-up questions, questions they've found through experience will put a person at ease and from which they can fall easily into conversation. I think of them as "fall-back insurance," something to have along in case you can't find a more natural way into a conversational mode.

If possible, use a more organic method. Find something relevant to the situation, the setting, the day's news (even the weather) to get the two of you talking in a relaxed way. If, for example, you see on the person's shelves a series of golf trophies, it would be better to ask about those (an organic entry) than to ask a typical warm-up question: "What sports do you like?" or "What do you do to relax when not working?" If you see photographs or paintings of children, comment about them, rather than using your list of warm-up questions to ask, "Do you have any children?" Even if the photographed children turn out to be nieces and nephews, you are off on a very human level, talking about children who are obviously significant to the interviewee for some reason. And what is that reason?

Listen, really listen, to the responses about the children. If you're lucky, you may learn something about the interviewee from which you can logically (and organically)

launch the actual interview. The discussion, for example, might bring out that the children are, indeed, the interviewee's children and they were, at the time of the photograph, living at Yahats, Oregon. That's where she was born, too, and where she still returns every summer to work on her books. (Ah ha!) "What book are you working on now?" "What is it about Yahats that helps you write?" "Which of your other books did you write there?" "Do you think many authors have certain places that seem to turn on their creative juices?" "I've read many definitions of creativity, but what is it?" There's no telling where that last discussion will go, but it may lead to other writers' and friends' names that will provide you further questions—or lead you to them for follow-up interviews.

2. Go with the flow of the conversation, bringing it back into line with new, cleverly invented questions (or prepared ones you've been waiting to ask from your list and can now slip into the conversation organically).

3. Act and react as you would in a true conversation. Don't jump on certain answers with an accusatorial tone, unless you are an investigative reporter deliberately trying to provoke the person. If an answer stimulates you, pursue it... but perhaps a little later on. If you are perceived as a pouncer, the person will put his or her guard back up, the guard you've been trying so hard to lower.

4. Keep your opinions to yourself, no matter how difficult it may be for you. True, this makes it an unreal conversation for you, but, remember, your readers are more interested in the interviewee's opinions than in yours. Feel the person out to plumb the dimensions of his or her opinions, but don't offer yours too often or too obviously. Just ask evocative questions, the kind that pull out further meaning, not the kind that might make the person wish they'd never offered the opinion in the first place. Your job is to find out for your readers what this person thinks about anything. If you're too confrontational in your questioning, the source will soon dry up, and you'll be forced back into a shopping list mode.

5. Ask open-ended questions, the type that cannot be answered easily by a simple yes, no, or maybe.

6. Ask why. A simple "Why?" may be the most productive question you'll ever ask. Even when you think you know the answer, ask it. Don't be afraid to look less than a genius; ask it. The answer may surprise you.

7. Probe the abstract or vague answer. Sometimes, an abstract or vague answer will be completely innocent of deception; at other times, such an answer may be the obvious head of obfuscation rising up to confound you. The only way to find out, for sure, is to ask for details. You'll want details for your readers' ease of comprehension anyway, but the asking for details may flush out obfuscatory intentions. If that happens, PROBE, PROBE, PROBE.

8. Ask simple questions. They are often the most fertile, growing the best answers. Oriana Falacci, one of the best-known interviewers, has often been cited for the simple question she asked an astronaut, the type of question most of us would hesitate to ask someone presumably so brave: "Were you scared?" The straightforward reply was informative, interesting, and surprising. "Hell yes," he answered, and that led to a relaxed conversation between them from that point on. She may have known very well what he would say; she wanted to hear him say it—and what he had to say about it. Unasked, the subject would not have been addressed.

9. Elicit anecdotes. During your preliminary interviews with significant others, you have undoubtedly collected a few anecdotes about your main person or about the topic of your research, but once you're in that interview with your subject, it is time to get some of the most useful ones. Ken Metzler, author of Creating Interviewing, advises us not to ask for them directly, "Have you got an interesting anecdote that I can use to delight my readers?" Such an open-ended question with an inherent expectation ("interesting," "delight") will often draw a blank, or some long, involved story that you can't use. Instead, just keep your ears open for "little stories" the person tells—those are the anecdotes.

Keep alert, too, for the potential for a "little story" in what the person is saying at the moment. If the interviewee has mentioned something general about some kind of behavior, ask whether that's ever happened to him or her. Let your subject spin out the little story—and be quiet for a few seconds after he or she stops speaking; the first story may well trigger another one. If you allow the person to keep pulling up a whole string of memories, you may get all you need. If, however, he or she doesn't come up with a second one (after you've let a few seconds of silence go by) tell one on yourself. That will not only develop further rapport between you, it may also elicit further ones from the subject as he or she sort of "tops" yours.

Unless the interviewee is also a writer, he or she may not understand what an anecdote is and how you may use it, so just ask for examples. Asking for stories may elicit more than you wanted—more words, anyway. The word "example" connotes brevity, and that's probably what you seek. If you then want more words about the example, just ask "Why?" or "How come?" or "How's that?" or "Why do you feel that way?" These are all open-ended questions meant to elicit or evoke responses.

If you want to encourage the interviewee to come up with more and better anecdotes, act interested, enthusiastic, enthralled, or fascinated by the "little story" evoked. People like to be appreciated for what they say, so show your appreciation (even if you have to stretch a little). Your subject will be tempted to find better and better stories that will elicit from you further appreciation of his or her talent at storytelling. You may use only one or two of the little stories, or pieces of them, but your reader will benefit from your clever eliciting.

10. Be as gracious at the end of an interview as you were in the beginning: You may want to come back for a second interview; you may want to ask further questions by telephone later; or you may want to interview this same person (or his or her colleagues) for a different article or book at a much later date. To use the common aphorism, "Don't burn your bridges behind you."

A part of being gracious and professional is to inform the interviewee at the end of the interview just how things go from there—what happens to the tape—and some inside information about the writing, editing, and publishing process, if the person seems unfamiliar with the process. You probably will not want to send the person drafts for approval, but you may say that you'd like to be able to call back to verify any facts, dates, etc. When the article is published, send a copy to your interviewee(s) immediately. After all, they've given you their time and expertise—the only thing in it for them now is the article's publication.

11. Probe for the human side. When you write about a person, especially an "important" person, you must find ways to remind your readers that this person is a human being not too terribly different from them. They know that he or she is, in fact, very different, but if they can identify with some common element behind the mask, they'll feel they under stand the person better.

0 0

Post a comment