“Uh-huh” in interviews

The most powerful interview technique is nodding your head and saying, “Uh-huh.”

Everybody knows that the best interviews become conversations, and that’s true. But it’s a peculiar kind of conversation. It’s one-sided, with one person doing most of the talking, and the other steering. And subjects are anxious about what you’ll do with the information.

So you need to build an atmosphere of trust, where the subject feels free to tell you things. You have to disarm their worries, avoid any sense of manipulation, and friendly things up.

So you nod your head and say “Uh-huh” a lot. What’s the effect? Subjects interpret nodding and “Uh-huh” as agreement with what they’re saying, and tell you more. Since you seem so agreeable, they keep talking. And you keep writing down what they’re saying, so they feel important and tell you more. Once in a while, you say, “Tell me more,” and they do. More nodding, more “Uh-huhs.”

You have to do this naturally and subtly. If subjects notice what you’re doing, their anxiety comes roaring back.

I don’t need to list all the related techniques because you already know how to converse: eye contact, smiling, leaning in, laughing at funny bits, not hunching your shoulders, etc. You already know the things to say that propel a conversation along: “Really?” “What was that like? “Who else was there” “How did you know him, meet her, get there, find it?”

Here’s the bottom line. A good conversation works because both people feel important and interesting. A good interview works because subjects feel safe and important and interesting, even if they’re not the subject of the interview.

N.B. These principles apply to print interviews; television has a different, tenser dynamic.

[Got any magic interviewing tricks you want to share?]

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Published in: on July 22, 2009 at 10:19 am  Comments (9)  

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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. An editor once told me:

    “If you’re not really interested in your interviews, they’re going to give you the quote that you need. But if you really engage with them they’ll tell you what they know.”

  2. Thanks. I’ll put that great advice in the final book. It speaks to reporters’ settling too easily. When they have enough stuff, they’re satisfied. The great ones spend their whole careers trying to satisfy their curiosity.

  3. Favorite advice No. 1: Never finish your subject’s sentences. We humans seem to be programmed to loath a pause, so we jump in to fill it. If you keep quiet, your subject will fill it, often saying things you never dreamed they’d tell you. Favorite advice No. 2, straight out of a Chinese fortune cookie: “Remember — God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason. Listen twice as much as you talk.”

  4. Thanks, Kathy. When my wife Joan finishes one of my sentences, I count to ten under my breath, and then finish it myself with something as far as possible from what she just said. It makes no difference.

  5. Don, the only thing I might add is this. Print reporters who are making the jump to incorporating multimedia in their work should be aware that their “uh-huh” in the wrong place can ruin the audio of a good quote.

    Practice a non-verbal way of agreeing with your interview subject. Eyes, smiles, facial expression, body language all work well.

    Think of it as being interviewed by a mime 🙂

  6. Thanks for a helpful comment. I don’t use sound yet, and I appreciate writers who do supplementing my posts. I’ll get it all in final book somehow.

  7. Don, I’m loving yur “Twitter tips” – keep ’em coming please!

    One thing that works for me is rather than asking a question that might result in a yes/no answer, I start with, “Tell me about…” and then I get a more conversational, animated reply.

  8. Thanks, Kara.I use yes/no questions mostly for confirmations. I find they don’t get good answers because so few adult issues are yes/no. My favorite question is “Tell me more.”

  9. […] long before I first connected with Don Fry, one of the best writing coaches in journalism. But Don says, “The most powerful interview technique is nodding your head and saying, […]


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