Enhancing the Magic of the Interview

I recently sat with my grandfather and asked him to tell me his life story. It only took about an hour, but that hour was perhaps the most significant hour of our entire relationship.

It’s an honor to interview another person, and there are a million little things that can make the experience more powerful and effective for both interviewer and interviewee. Rob Rosenthal has actually developed a pretty canonical checklist of how to set yourself up for an excellent interview experience, and that’s a fantastic way to prepare yourself.

Here’s a selection of my personal favorite interview tips that I’ve collected over time, hopefully some of which you’ve never heard before:

  1. The essentials are essential. When I was researching for this blogpost, I talked to Jeremy Helton, who facilitated the interview that became this story from StoryCorps (one of my favorites), during his stint as a StoryCorps mobile facilitator. He told me that the most important aspect of an interview experience is that you want the interviewee to feel comfortable, listened to, and respected. Everything else you do in an interview should build on these three things.

  2. Practice is crucial. Get super familiar with the equipment, then get extra super familiar. This is so you can be more fully present with the interviewee, and not thinking about or fiddling with your gadgets. If you have an iPhone and you want something that won’t require too much technical experience, I recommend downloading the Griffin iTalk app (pay version or free – both are good), and sitting down with someone to just have a regular conversation. Practice keeping the microphone 4-6 inches from the speaker’s mouth and avoid popping p’s (Remember: the iPhone mic is on the bottom of the device). If you budget extra time to get familiar with the equipment, you and your interviewee will both have a much better time.

  3. Sharing your own stories can be useful. The oral historian Studs Terkel was famous for being a talker; and people used to ask him, “How can you gather so many great stories, when it seems like you’re doing all the talking?” The reason is that when you share a story from your life with people, they will be more comfortable opening up and sharing their stories with you. It may seem a little manipulative, but it works, and it will actually deepen your personal connection to the interviewee.

  4. Silence can be awesome. In her book, Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott says “Let silence do the heavy lifting.” Sometimes silence can be the best way to show your interviewee that you care about what they are saying, and it opens a wide door for them to express their thoughts. It’s tremendously uncomfortable for some interviewers, so I recommend spending some time familiarizing yourself with Silence. Make friends with just sitting there, waiting. Practice it here, at a website where the goal is to do nothing for two full minutes.

  5. Sentence fragments can be perfect. You can’t always just be sitting there in silence, waiting for the other person to talk. So, when you talk, what are you supposed to say? Do you need to think of awesome questions to ask? Actually, some of the best ways to steer an interviewee is not to think of great questions (which often puts the spotlight on the interviewer’s skills, not what you really want to do), but just to give people little contact statements that remind them that you’re listening to what they’re saying. Try just repeating the last handful of words that your interviewee just said, and that will get them talking again – that can work wonders. In the above story from StoryCorps, notice how the one moment where the interviewer steps in – he’s essentially saying a sentence fragment: “So your father thought that the shock of meeting him…” He’s reassuring the interviewee that he’s listening and interested in hearing more. That’s all it took to get the ball rolling again.

  6. Multiple endings can be spectacular. The Kitchen Sisters like to say “this is the last question” when they actually have plenty of questions left. This is because people relax when they think the interview is nearly over. They relax even more when the interview is actually over. That’s why, even after saying “thank you so much,” The Kitchen Sisters keep the tape rolling, so that when the interviewee starts talking again about the same topic (eg, “you know this is really great that we’re doing this interview, because…”), they can just pick up the microphone and keep the interview going.

  7. Keep the story in mind, throughout the interview. If you’re doing a StoryCorps style interview, you can basically let the interviewee guide the experience. But when you’re the producer of a story, you need to have a clear idea of what you want to get out of the interview. This will help you frame your questions such that your interview will provide the killer tape that you need for your story. I started this post with Rob Rosenthal, and I’ll finish it with Rob Rosenthal. Rob has his own important set of guidelines on how to steer the narrative ship during an interview. It’s called “Imagining the Story.”

Did I follow all of these guidelines to a T when I interviewed my grandfather? No way. In fact, if anything, I think I followed tip #4 too much, because there were several moments of silence where my grandfather said, “I guess that’s about all I have to say.” This isn’t because he’d run out of stories (he’s ninety-five), but because he didn’t know how to keep the momentum going, how to keep thinking of stories. If I’d spoken more, there likely would have been fewer of these awkwardnesses.

But every interview is followed by those “I should have said that” moments. More important than any tip-list or to-do list is to focus on being present during the the interview, interacting with another real, actual person. In fact, the most powerful moments of connection between me and my grandfather — like hearing him talk about how he never met his father, and how has always wanted to — had nothing to do with my skill as an interviewer, and everything to do with the simple fact that we were sitting there together, just to talk.

image via flickr

Article written by: Will Rogers on 12/4/2013

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