Getting the Most Out of Interviews
Three Critical Moments
In nearly every interview, you will face two or three “critical” moments–situations that can make or break the story you will eventually write. All interviews have two, and some have three such moments. Preparing for these situations will serve you well, both in the short term and in the long run.
In part 1, we discussed the importance of trying to relax when you’re interviewing someone for a news story, feature article or book. But being relaxed does not mean you have the luxury of becoming mentally comfortable. From the moment you make contact with the person you’re interviewing, you cannot let your guard down. You have to be “on” the entire time you’re together, whether it’s in person or on the phone—especially during the critical moments.
Moment Number One
Not surprisingly, the first critical moment in an interview comes at the very beginning. How you handle the first few moments of an interview will often determine the course it takes.
You need to try to establish both rapport and trust. With some people, you simply never will. But go the extra mile to let them know they can trust you to handle both the interview and the resulting story professionally. Start by making small talk but never by being overly familiar. There’s a line there that you don’t want to cross.
If the interview is conducted by phone, try to comment on the capabilities of the person who helped set it up. People like to hear that their staff is doing a good job. Or, depending on the situation, be apologetic: “Look, I know you’ve gotten dozens of calls about this, but I want to give you an opportunity to explain this situation to our readers.”
When doing an interview in person, comment on your surroundings. If it’s their house or office, the minute you pull up in the car look for something striking that you might be able to compliment the person on—but the comment has to be genuine.
Never, ever try to flatter the person you’re interviewing. Most people can spot phoniness a mile away, and you’ll lose any possibility of gaining their trust. Your purpose is to put them at ease and to get them to talk about something personal.
The operative word here is “talk.” You want the person to talk, not just answer your questions. Often, the people you interview have been interviewed so often that their answers sound rehearsed. It takes real skill to get them to talk like a real person.
If their answers start to sound too canned, try a question like this: “How would you explain your business to a child?” or “What would you tell a group of high school seniors about your career?” That helps the person to think in basic terms about what they do, instead of sounding as if they’re reading from a brochure.
Moment Number Two
The second critical moment in some–but not all–interviews comes when you ask the tough question that both you and the person you’re interviewing knows you have to ask. Save this question for the end of your time together.
In an ideal situation, you’ve had time to establish rapport with the person. You’ve asked about the things he or she loves to talk about. Now you need to get a comment on something that’s going to make both of you squirm.
There’s no easy way to do this, but one way to tackle it would be to put the question in someone else’s mouth. Try to phrase the question like this: “Look, I’m sure you’re aware that your critics have been questioning the wisdom of keeping your brother on the payroll. Our readers will want to hear your side of this instead of relying on negative reports they’ve been hearing. What can you tell them about the situation?”
That takes you out of the picture almost completely. You’re there strictly as an intermediary, someone who’s delivering an important message from one person to another.
If the answer isn’t satisfactory, though, don’t be afraid to persevere until you get what you want. But try to the bitter end to keep yourself out of it. You want cooperation, not antagonism.
Moment Number Three
There’s a final critical moment in every interview. The comments made right after an interview has officially ended are often the most revealing.
Sometimes, depending on the nature of the interview, you can end by asking, “Is there anything I haven’t touched on that you would want our readers to know about you or your business?”
That accomplishes two things: It lets the person know the interview is about to end, and it shows the person that you care about what she has to say.
When she’s done, thank her and make some light comment about something she has said. It almost doesn’t matter what you say at this point; the person you’re interviewing relaxes–but you don’t.
If you don’t remember anything else, remember this: The interview is not over until you’ve hung up the phone or walked away from the subject of the interview.
Too often, novice interviewers–especially if they’re nervous–miss the best part of an interview because they let their guard down too soon. They’ve put their notebook away and turned off the tape recorder, and they think the interview is over. But it’s not.
Once you put those tools away, your senses have to be sharper than ever. So often, as the person you’re interviewing is walking you to the door, he relaxes–and unknowingly gives you the quote of a lifetime.
Take Your Time
One final comment about the end of the interview. Allow time afterwards to make notes to yourself. If the person is walking you to the door and has just given you a great quote, pull out your notebook again and write it down as soon as you are out of his presence. You don’t want to stifle him or derail his train of thought, so wait until you’re in your car.
Never forget the purpose of conducting interviews: to get the information you can’t get elsewhere, such as quotes and anecdotes about the person’s life. Trust your instincts; back off when you should; persevere when you must.