Interviewing is an art, and like any art, it takes study, practice, and a willingness to learn from your missteps.
Artful interview questions work like a prism, revealing an unexpected richness to your subject … and sometimes, even adding a layer or plot twist to your story.
To get there, it helps to have useful phrases at the ready when you want to dig deeper, clarify something that was said, or just move forward.
When you didn’t get what you needed: “Let’s circle back to something you said earlier…”
You’ve asked your question, the interviewee has answer sufficiently—or so he thinks. The problem is that you didn’t get the answer you needed.
Maybe he was short on details or misunderstood your question. Or maybe he said something that sparked another question in your mind.
Whatever the case, he’s now moved onto to something else.
Let your interviewee finish his thought. Jot it down in your notepad and bring it up at your next opportunity. “I want to go back to what we were talking about earlier” is a natural way to guide him back.
When you just don’t get it: “Help me understand…” (or “I want to make sure I’m getting this”)
Many years ago, when I was working as a journalist at a community newspaper, I interviewed the manager of a recycling center about how mixed recyclables are separated.
He said something I did not understand at all. In an attempt to clarify, I said, “So what you’re saying is…”
Depending on the medium, your subject is likely worried about being misquoted, being quoted out of context, or just plain looking foolish. So putting words into your interviewee’s mouth, of course, is a no-no.
The manager was quick to correct me, and I learned that a better way to get clarity is to make it a request for help, effectively saying: What you’re telling me is important, and I want to make sure I’m getting this. Will you help me out?
When you want to add richness to the story: “Set the scene…” (or “Take us back to…”)
Showing is more powerful than telling, as we (and your ninth grade English composition teacher) are fond of saying.
But it’s not always easy to paint a picture during an interview. Often you ask a question (“When did you learn of your diagnosis?”) and you get facts (“Three years ago at the doctor’s office”).
Frank Stasio, radio host of WUNC’s The State of Things, is skilled at helping interviewees add rich details, consequently drawing listeners in to the story.
“Take us back to that time,” he’ll say to a guest. And the result is a descriptive, often multisensory account of their experience.
For a radio interview, it’s important to add this dimension for listeners, who are working with auditory stimulation only.
For video, this can be gold: It opens up new visual possibilities for telling a story.
When you want to add richness to the character: “Why is that?”
“When an actor comes to me and wants to discuss his character, I say, ‘It’s in the script,'” Alfred Hitchcock once said. “If he says, ‘But what’s my motivation?’ I say, ‘Your salary.'”
Jokes aside, uncovering someone’s motivations, values, fears, and other guiding forces is key to understand who they are. These things, however, normally go unsaid.
“He’s helped me be more comfortable with my emotions. I’ve never liked that I have emotions. They make me feel weak.”
“Why is that?”
“My mother was always confiding her problems in me when I was growing up. She counted on me for support. I guess I felt like I had to be strong to set an example.”
Ask why (“Why do you say that?” “Why is that hard for you?”) when you want to add dimension to your subject.
When you want to challenge your interviewee: “Some might say that…”
Your interview doesn’t have to be contentious for you want to play devil’s advocate.
It may be that your subject just isn’t considering another side of the story. Or maybe she’s using the interview as a platform for her agenda.
But while interviewing a proponent of merit pay for teachers, for example, you may not want to say, “Isn’t it impossible to measure a teacher’s value to the educational process?” It’s combative and unprofessional.
Instead, remove yourself a step. Consider something like, “How do you respond to a recent study showing that merit pay has no overall effect on student achievement?” or “What would you say to people who say that test scores can’t truly indicate how well students learn?”
Getting her to respond to an opposing viewpoint can balance the story and even shore up her argument.
Try it out
Give these phrases a shot and see if they yield a smoother, more illuminating conversation. And add more to your personal toolbox as you begin to master the art of the interview.
Open Eye Creative is a small video production company with a huge vision: to use the power of story to strengthen and propel organizations that are changing the world. Read more.