As a writer, I hang my hat on good interviews. I have found that the trick to mining a great story from your source is essentially the ability to act like a curious, caring human being.
My favorite story about the art of the interview involves a newspaper reporter who was doing a five-year follow-up story with a woman whose teenage daughter had disappeared one night, and never returned. The reporter sat in the kitchen talking with the mother about her loss, and living five years without knowing what ever happened to her girl.
The mother excused herself to use the bathroom and the reporter began taking a careful look at his surroundings, taking notes on what he saw. When the mother returned to the interview, the reporter pointed to a light switch by the back door. It had been taped in the “on” position. The tape was yellowed and curling up at the edges. What was it, he wanted to know?
She explained that the night her daughter disappeared, the last thing she had said to the girl was, “I’ll leave the light on for you.” It had been on for five years.
Look. Listen. Care. You’ll get the gold if you do.
Here are the tools I take with me into any interview. There are others, of course. Ask open-ended questions, check your batteries, dress appropriately; but these — there is something rewarding and very special about these.
Easier said than done, I know. It starts the moment you meet the person you are interviewing, from the way you shake his hand to the small-talk inquiries you make, accompanied by good eye contact.
If you know your subject loves baseball and his team played last night, ask about the game. If she has small kids at home, thank her for making time to meet with you and ask her what she told the kids she was going to do.
The point here is to let your interviewee know that you understand her life. Getting your subjects talking about their passion, be it baseball or kids, connects them to their heart and paves the way for developing trust. If your subject trusts you, she will reveal more during the interview.
Of course, you can’t ask about last night’s baseball game or those preschoolers at home if you haven’t done your homework. Know enough details about your subject’s personal life to help establish trust by asking questions that show you care. And, by all means, know what makes him tick in the area that is the focus of the interview.
Coming prepared with background information about the topic tucked away in the back of your mind not only sends the message that you take the interview seriously, it will also serve to spark your interviewee’s passion when she feels she is talking to someone who understands.
Take a tip from your anatomy. You have two ears and one mouth. Listen twice as much as you talk. Not only will your subject sense that you are engaged, but you will also be able to hear a change in tone, a hesitation, or the slam of an emotional door slam behind your source’s words.
Nowhere is the phrase, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” more important than in the interview. The real action is frequently lurking between the spoken lines in the conversation with your soucr.
Follow your nose
When you sense something is happening emotionally for your subject, it is key that you follow your nose. Your gut instinct can lead you into amazing nooks and crannies during an interview — especially if you’ve developed trust, come prepared, and are listening carefully to what your subject is saying (and how he is saying it.)
There are no points for timidity here. Sometimes, as interviewers, we stop when we sense we are moving into sensitive territory. Don’t. When you act on a feeling, your subject will bask in the beauty of being heard and offer up nuggets of gleaming tidbits that will make your final story – be it written, videotaped or recorded for a podcast – sparkle and shine.