Getting Beneath the Surface: 10 Interviewing Tips

posted on October 27th 2015 in Storytelling with 0 Comments

I’ve been creating/producing the new GroundTruth/WGBH podcast lately, and that’s gotten me thinking a lot about what makes for a good interview (for an in-depth audio show).

To me, good interviewing is about helping people share the most authentic and vivid versions of themselves. Everyone’s life is dramatic and real and important, but it’s not easy to talk about your experience in a way that brings all of that out, that makes someone care.

That’s where a good interviewer can help. Here’s how I do it (with a couple lines in here borrowed from my co-producer, Dan Gross).

1. Imagine you’re them — and ask questions that help listeners do the same

Good interviewing is an act of empathy– can you get inside what this person’s experiences and emotions might be like from the inside? Your questions should guide the person to describe what it’s like to walk in their own shoes.

From Ira Glass:

“I’ve always admired how well Terry Gross imagines herself into the mind of the person she’s interviewing. She asked my cousin Philip Glass, memorably, “Do you ever try to write music that doesn’t sound like Philip Glass music?” The greatest question he’s ever been asked in an interview. “Yes!” he responded, excited by the question. “And every time I fail.”

2. Listen deeply and respond in the moment.

Good interviewing is an act of being in the present moment with someone — put aside all your preconceived notions and agendas. Listen deeply and respond authentically.

Distraction and preoccupation make deep connection to another person impossible. Quiet your mind. Just respond to what’s happening.

Follow up questions, for instance, are so interesting and important largely because they show you’re listening, they are “alive” and in the moment.

The other key thing about being present is that a good interview, and a good story, is an emotional journey. The words are just surface. Staying present helps you stay connected to your own emotions and to the other person’s emotions at all times — that’s where the best stuff will come from, the real stuff.

3. Ego has no place in an interview. This is not about you.

As the interviewer, you are a channel. Your job is to help people express themselves authentically. If you talk too much during an interview listeners will get sick of you very quickly.

In an interview, the only good reason to share your own experience or perspective — and this is a very good reason — is if it will help the interviewee share their own. Sometimes that can be very helpful and create genuine moments of connection. But it should still be brief.

Even better, if you’re going to share something yourself, be vulnerable. “I’ve struggled with that too” goes a long way in helping someone else open up.

Certainly, if you had a prior relationship with the person, it can be interesting to draw on that if it draws the person out more or creates common ground. But it’s not necessarily worth spending time on.

4. What is truly fascinating and new to your audience?

You need to be deeply connected to what your listeners would actually find surprising and interesting.

From Ira:

“Really so much comes down to judgment. I think when we talk about what makes someone’s work great, we overemphasize technique and not enough gets said about the importance of having interesting taste.

An interviewer doesn’t need to be as interesting as her interviewees, for sure, but she needs to be pretty damn interesting, and, more important, to have the taste to know what’s truly fascinating and new.”

5. Do your homework, but then stop thinking about it

You should absolutely be prepared for an interview. Know what someone has said before and where your questions might lead you together. Know the person’s work so you can draw out examples you already know exist.

Think through the arc of the interview in advance. What is the journey that the listener is going to embark on?

But once you’ve done that homework, don’t let it get in the way of the conversation. A good interview is spontaneous, not scripted. Homework informs your conversation but it shouldn’t drive it.

6. Gently nudge someone to see his or her behavior in the moment

Some of the most interesting interview moments are when the interviewer names something happening right now, in the discussion. Behavior is especially useful to observe.

For instance, in a recent interview , I could tell the conflict reporter I was talking to was torn about her career — it came through in her voice. So I named it, I said “Tracey, it sounds like you’re going back and forth a bit there.”

That’s a spontaneous check in that brings listeners’ attention right to the forefront — it’s sort of like asking them “did you hear that in her voice?”

It creates a real moment.

7. Remember that listeners need visual descriptions and moments to get invested

Most people are not good visual storytellers. If you ask them a question, they’ll respond in a broad overview or generality. They don’t tend to focus in on specific moments or scenes.

They need your help for that.

You need to prompt them to paint the picture — use their senses — “tell us about one moment,” or “what’s an image you remember from that day,” or “take us to that spot, what would we see?”

From Dan:

“If you hear a subject say “we were sitting in my bedroom,” ask them what kind of furniture it had, and what time it was, and whether the bed was comfortable. If someone mentions “it was a difficult time for me,” ask (gently) what made it difficult — who helped her through it — what emotions they felt specifically, and why. Radio interviews are like children’s books. Every page needs an illustration.”

8. What are the stakes?

Stakes are absolutely essential. I only care as a listener if I know why it mattered to someone. That’s not as simple as it sounds. You have to get someone to say what was at stake.

“Why was it so important to you to do XYZ?”
“What if you had failed?”
What if it hadn’t worked out that way?”
What were you hoping for?”

9.Don’t take things for granted. Zoom out.

Sometimes the best question is the most “obvious” one — the big “why?” question or the “tell us how you got there?” question. I asked Tracey in my recent interview (coming soon), for instance, a simple question that paid off — “how do people end up believing that someone else deserves to die?

10. Have fun.

From Dan:

“Talk about something that makes you both laugh. There’s nothing like warmth and humor to help listeners connect.”