The art of the interview
By Steve Portigal at 11:00 am, Tuesday July 09 2013

Here are two insightful takes on the art of interviewing, from two different sources.

First, Ira Glass is interviewed by Jacob Weisberg (the short video is embedded below). Glass explains how he helps people feel comfortable sharing with him by bringing himself into the conversation (a technique I’m not so keen on for user research, although I’ve seen some people be successful with it). He also reveals that what is edited out of the broadcast interviews are tons of clarification questions, where he’s following up to understand the sequence of events, or the different people involved in the story, etc.

Second, How to Listen makes a good case for the authentic personal elements that we ourselves bring to our interactions with interviewees.

Dr. Mason had a simple method of getting me to begin. He would lean slightly forward, all the while maintaining eye contact and then when he got my attention, he would nod. I will never forget that nod; it was a signal that he was with me and I could safely express myself about whatever was on my mind, but I realize now that he was controlling the conversation. A cursory nod encouraged. Elongated ups and downs, (and the raising of eyebrows!) symbolized agreement.

This is the first lesson for writers – or anyone – who conducts interviews: If you want someone to talk, you’ve got to know how to listen. And good listening is a surprisingly active process. The interviewee is your focus of attention; you are there to hear what he says and thinks, exclusively. When I say, “interviewing,” I am talking from the perspective of a narrative or creative nonfiction writer. Interviewing for news is somewhat different; reporters usually know, more or less, the information they need to unearth. The writer of narrative, by contrast, is often seeking the unknown – the story behind the facts. You won’t always know the story until you hear it; your job as an interviewer, often, is to keep your subject talking.

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