Interview structure

Interviews enrich writing by giving you access to information you can’t get otherwise. They add human touches with quotations and anecdotes. We spend our entire lives learning to judge human character from how people say things, not just what they say. Interviews give us access to character as well as information.

What do you want from an interview? Information, understanding, and some quotations, in that order. Proper interviewing techniques and structures enable you to leave with the information you need and understand, with some quotations to enliven it.

Interviewing, like writing, has its own process:

Preparation includes everything you do before the interview proper, and Annotation happens after it ends, when you assess and correct your notes. The interview begins with a long session of Base, where you establish a relationship that allows you to gather facts. Close In, which does not necessarily happen in every interview, involves asking difficult, even uncomfortable, questions. Close Out cleans up unresolved issues, confirms statements, and gets material onto the record.

The more you know going into an interview, the better you listen. Good listening allows you to ask good follow-up questions, where the best stuff lies, as we saw in Katie Couric’s interviews with Sarah Palin in 2008. Preparation includes reading documents, especially on the person you’re about to interview. You should also schedule difficult interviews later, so you can learn a lot in the easier ones.

And while you’re in the waiting room before the interview, look around. Waiting rooms express the personality of the person who owns them. For example, you notice a signed photograph of your subject fishing for tarpon with George H. W. Bush, so you start with, “I noticed a picture of you fishing with George Bush.” And your subject talks volubly, and you’re off.

Asking about basic information takes up most of any interview, but it also creates a relationship between you and the source. We use body language to encourage subjects, convincing them of our professionalism and fascination with them as persons:
· Lean toward the subject.
· Maintain eye contact
· Nod your head and say, “Uh huh.”
· Smile and laugh at jokes.
· Take it slow.
· Keep saying, “Tell me more about that.”

Sounds like dating, doesn’t it? Well, interviewing and dating use many of the same skills.

“Now wait a minute,” you object, “television interviewers don’t act like that. They ask hard questions right away, and stay in the subject’s face.” Right you are, but most television interviewers are after faces and conflict, not facts.

Here’s the hard part: you have to react sincerely, or the subject will spot you as a phony and a manipulator. End of interview. If you think of yourself as a manipulator, you’ll look like one. So think of yourself as a professional forming a bridge between this subject and your reader. Treat both fairly.

Close-In happens at the end of Base, when you realize that you and your subject can handle tough questions. Many writers fail to write deep stories because they can’t ask hard questions. They either don’t know how, or they’re afraid. But proper techniques and attitudes will get you there.

You don’t want to ask hard questions until your subject’s ready to answer them. But how do you know the magic moment has arrived? Watch the subjects’ body language:
· Enjoying the conversation
· Telling you things you didn’t ask
· Hands and arms away from the body
· Leaning in and smiling, etc.

So the subject’s ready, but are you? Your mother taught you not to ask rude questions, and here you are sitting with an important person, about to ask him why he added melamine to baby formula. Your mother yells in your ear, “No, no, no, don’t ask him that! Be nice!” You say to yourself, “Quiet, Mother. I’m a professional writer, and I have a license to ask hard questions.”

Then you say, “This next question may seem a little harsh, but I have to ask it. Why did you add melamine to the baby formula?” Then you just sit there maintaining eye contact and wait. And wait. And wait. And keep your mouth shut and wait. And the source will either throw you out or answer the question.

If you’re still in the room, the next few follow-up questions will probably yield the treasure. Listen, ask the follow-up, shut up and wait, listening.

Close-Out is the mopping-up phase. Anything you’re unsure about, now’s the time to review it. The little questions that didn’t fit before, ask them now. And ask the source if you can call back later in case you need to check something. You might say you work at home at night, so would she mind if you called her at home.

See how you create trust? By coming on slow and easy and unthreatening.

At the very end of Close-Out, something magic often occurs. You close your notebook and stand up to leave, thanking the source. Suddenly she starts talking about something you didn’t ask about because you didn’t know about it. You open your notebook and ask good follow-ups until this phase runs out.

Why does this wonderful revelation happen? The source has something she wants to talk about, but you didn’t bring it up. So always prompt for it, like this: “Thank you for being so open with me. By the way, is there anything I didn’t bring up that you’d like to talk about?”

As soon as the interview ends, if possible, sit down and annotate your notes. Expand contractions and abbreviations. Inventory what you got and what you missed. If you’re still on site, you can probably get what you need in a document, right there.

[I learned much of what I’ve just said from John Sawatsky. Thanks, John.]
[Care to share your interviewing tricks?]

Published in: on August 17, 2009 at 4:01 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Interesting post, as always, Don. Could you do a followup on techniques for the phone interview? Given time demands these days, I have to do more and more interviews where I have to get a person to open up to me without ever seeing his or her face.

  2. Thanks, Kathy. Telephone interviews are much harder than face to face. Take a look at Thanks.

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