Eye Contact

Anybody who’s ever dated knows the value of eye contact in conversation. John Donne says to his beloved, “Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread/ Our eyes upon one double string” [The Ecstasy, 7-8]. In interviews, we watch the eyes for signals, and use our own eyes to keep the source engaged. But as my friend John Sawatsky of ESPN says, “It is important to maintain eye contact during the interview, which is hard while actively taking notes.”

You could fire up a recorder and not take notes at all. If you have a source who pays no attention to the machine and talks normally anyway, if you can pay rapt attention and ask good follow-up questions, and if you have a recorder that never never never fails, that’s a good (but dangerous) tactic.

Where do you hold your notebook while maintaining eye contact? Some people think notetaking makes subjects nervous, so they hide it, keeping the notebook in their lap so the source won’t see them jotting. They write without looking, which means they get only a few notes on a page, and they’re hard to read. The notebook also contains notes to yourself, such as key questions, annotations, etc., and you can’t see them in your lap.

The other tactic is to use the notebook as a prop, letting the source see you taking notes avidly. Done properly, it creates an atmosphere of intense interest. I take notes on yellow pads, and write with lots of elbow. I want my sources to see me getting their words down and asking further questions to get them right. It’s part of turning interviews into conversations.

My sources see me writing down their words, and smiling and nodding and saying, “Um huh.” But in fact I may be inventorying the desk and the walls, looking for clues to character: “Bust of John Wesley?”

The equivalent for telephone interviewing is letting the source hear you typing notes. Some writers want the source to hear them getting down every precious word, while others hide the key clicks. You can turn the click sounds on or off on most computers.

My colleague Ed Miller has a tactic for riveting attention: “I have a mental trick that I play on myself…. I stare intently at the person’s eyes while envisioning a little sign on his forehead that says ‘Please listen to me!’ I know it’s silly, but it works. Every time I look in their eyes my peripheral vision ‘sees’ that reminder to concentrate. All I have to do to trigger this device is do what comes naturally – look at the person who’s talking to me.”

Like any other interviewing technique, don’t overdo it. If sources notice your tricks, they start feeling manipulated, and you lose the atmosphere of trust.

[How do you use your eyes and notebook in interviews?]

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Published in: on April 26, 2009 at 6:49 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Excellent advice, Don! I am in the “avid notetaker” category, too, and I find it’s effective. I make sure to have plenty of eye contact in the course of the notetaking (especially as I’m asking questions, or making follow-up comments to guide the discussion), but I’m a firm believer that it’s important to get the interview right, which I can only do with good notes.

  2. Thanks, Amy. Good notes, good questions, and eye contact equal the Holy Grail of interviewing.

  3. Another trick for oneself. Watch several episodes of “Lie To Me” (http://hulu.com/lie-to-me)and you’ll most likely start noticing every little wince your subject makes. It worked for me, though I didn’t watch the show with that in mind.

  4. Thanks for the tip, Heriberto. To be honest, I’ve never been very good at spotting liars, although I once invented a punctuation mark that meant “the following is a lie.” Useful for city hall reporters.


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