Last week, I posted some insights from a print and radio reporter who provided a great workshop to Youth Radio’s emerging journalists. I wanted to continue drawing from his insights, with a focus here on interviewing. I first learned to interview as an academic research assistant, my first year out of college. My boss at the time played the role of a caricatured nightmare interview subject and made each of us on the research team run through a ridiculous but instructive mock phone interview before she would let us start doing the real thing (we were interviewing non-profit arts leaders).
After that, I did a whole bunch of interviews as part of my own dissertation research, this time talking to teenagers about language and learning in the arts. Listening back to those recorded conversations was pure torture. I sounded like such an ass–all formal and stiff, like I might be wearing a white lab coat, but then at turns cringily phony and fawning (which is not only embarrassing but also methodologically problematic). I learned to lose the fakitude and just look this person in the eye and let myself get curious about their story, like I would a friend, but still interviews were never my shining research moments.
Then I really had to rethink the whole undertaking when I started working in media production–when the goal of an interview wasn’t so much to collect empirical data for a scholarly thesis, but to draw out characters and unexpected moments of candor and compelling stories (while, of course, also getting the facts and gathering clean sound). I was still learning how to interview like a journalist (rather than a scholar), and I also had to teach these skills to the young reporters I was collaborating with on their stories. At Youth Radio, we’ve gone back and forth endlessly about how much our students should script their interviews in advance, developing detailed lists of questions. The benefit of the question list: we as editors can help young folks craft questions that are thoughtful, unbiased, relevant, and cover the scope of the story. The downside: listening back to the tape, I’ve heard warm, spontaneous, curious and creative young people transform into robots, reading mechanically from lists, sounding as if they’re not listening at all, not engaging or responding or building on the stories their interviewees share.
A couple posts ago, I shared our Interview Tips from Youth Radio’s newsroom. Here, some added thoughts from a talented and seasoned (but still young himself!) journalist on the art of interviewing:
A) Interviewing isn’t about questions and answers, it’s a relationship. It’s like being on a date. You’re not building rapport with someone so that you can get a better interview, that rapport IS the interview.
B) You can and should train someone to be a better interview subject. The first 20 minutes or so of an interview, I ask questions that seem on topic, but are actually irrelevant to my piece. I don’t care about the answers. The whole point is to help the interview subject understand the kind of answers I need once the questions do matter. For instance, I’ll ask someone to describe a particular day for me. When they say, “I got up,” I’ll interrupt and ask them how many times they hit snooze, whether the alarm beeps or plays music, if the floor is cold, what they have on their walls, whether their room is messy and if so what’s on the floor. I’ll laugh extra hard if they say anything funny, because most interview subjects subconsciously want to please their interviewer, so laughing extra hard will encourage them to relax and be funny. Once they’re giving me the kind of thoughtful, detailed, revealing answers I want — once they’re in a storytelling frame of mind — then I gradually start asking questions that matter. And then I tend not to interrupt much, unless I have to. It means my interviews run long, but I learn things I wouldn’t have known to ask about.
C) Everyone is an expert, everyone has more things to teach you then you could ever have time to learn. And spending time with people is a privilege. It’s important to remember nobody owes you their time, or their answers. Make a person understand that, and they’ll feel powerful when you stick a mic on their face, not intimidated. People who feel powerful give better interviews.
D) Trust your curiosity. If someone says something interesting that you didn’t expect, forget about the questions you meant to ask, and see where the conversation takes you. You can always circle back.