Art of the Interview, Part 1

I’m supposed to be kind of a big shot at interviewing people, getting them to say things they maybe wouldn’t normally tell someone who, almost always, is an (im)perfect stranger.  People tell me I’m good at it, anyway.  

So perhaps it would be helpful for some of you to hear how I go about getting people to talk to me.  This little piece is the first in an on-going series as to my thoughts about how to get what you need from an interview.

First, a bit about my background, so you can decide if I’m credible.  I began interviewing people professionally in my first newspaper job, which commenced in the summer of 1974.  My immersion into interviewing was accelerated when I went to work at The Kentucky Post, sister to the afternoon Cincinnati Post, where my editor, Vance Trimble, was also the first Pulitzer winner I’d ever met.  (Wikipedia says Vance is 105, still writing in Wewoka, OK, where he graduated from high school in 1931.)

Vance compelled me to knock on the doors of homes where, an hour or so earlier, a son had been cut in two under a train or a daughter had been killed in a convenience store robbery.  We’d hear about it on the newsroom police monitor.  Often enough the reporter knocking on the door was breaking the news to the family.  

I was the guy knocking on the door dozens and dozens of times.  All of us at The KY Post did.  To my surprise, whoever answered the door would almost always invite me in, stunned and shocked as they were.  They wanted to know what I knew.  Once I told them, they seemed to want to talk.  They wanted to talk about the last time they’d seen the departed, what kind of person he or she was, anything you might imagine.

I think it was, in some small way, I had walked with them through the valley.  I made it clear that I really and truly hated to bother them and sorry to say, but such-and-such is dead.  I tried to be gentle.  Never stuck a microphone in anyone’s face.  I tried to show empathy.  

I think that’s the first thing in making an interview happen.  There has to be empathy.  It’s how people connect on a very basic level.  You mustn’t pretend to know what the person is experiencing.  You can’t know – but you care about the person enough to want to try to understand.  You just let them talk.  Every once in a while, ask a question.  But let the questions flow from what they’re saying.  Let them lead the conversation.

I hope that gives you something to chew on. Let’s peel another layer off the old onion next time, OK?