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?]