Lead Stories

Interviewing beyond words

"Interviewing beyond words" Continued...

Magazine writer Richard Preston: “While the conventional wisdom is that it is always better to do an interview face-to-face, I’ve often found that people are actually more forthcoming over the phone because they are not distracted by looking at you to see how you are reacting to what they say. Over the phone they are speaking in the comfort of their home or office.”

In-person interviewing for profiles is generally superior to proceeding by telephone and email, but sometimes (generally for reasons of time and money) we can’t do an in-person visit. In those situations we need to ask interviewees to be our eyes and ears, offering not only analysis but description. But some journalists prefer asking tough questions over the phone. Journalist Susan Orlean: “I once had to ask someone about incest in his family. It was the hardest question I’ve ever had to ask, so I waited until we were on the phone.”

Especially in phone interviews, we’re asking interviewees to help us, and sometimes we can be explicit: “Help me create a picture for the reader.” Don’t just settle for, “I walked up the hill.” Ask: What was the grass like? Weeds? Flowers? Was it hot? Did you sweat? What did it sound like? Were you excited? Tense?

Interviewing the tongue-tied

With reluctant interviewees, questioners may have to follow the information-eliciting techniques learned by parents: avoid questions that can be answered yes or no; encourage the recalcitrants to go further by asking, “And then? What happened next?” When stuck, ask five-W questions: “Who taught you that? What did you read that was influential? When? Where? Why?”

Storytelling: In The New New Journalism, Alex Kotlowitz recalls asking one interviewee, “‘Tell me about the moment you got the phone call about Eric’s death.’ When he answered that question he started to relive the experience. … I walked him through every minute: What he did, what he said, what he thought, what he was wearing. I want him to go into so much detail that I could close my eyes and see the events as if I had been there with him. Now if I had simply said, ‘Tell me about Eric’s death,’ he would have said something vague like, ‘Well, it was a terrible thing.’” Kotlowitz adds, “I ask my subject to tell me a story … it’s after people tell me their tales that I begin to poke and prod. The more specific they get, the more reflective and truthful they become.”

After an interview has elicited stories, it’s time to get more of a sense of what he believes—and confrontational questions can sometimes help. The pointed-question list of Jeff Myers, who leads Summit Ministries, includes: “Why do you believe that you are right? So what? Why is this significant? How do I know you are telling me the truth? Why should I believe you? How did you come to this conclusion? What’s an alternate explanation? Could you give me two sources who disagree with you? Why do they disagree?”

Myers has sometimes truncated those questions to a list of four deadly ones, asked sequentially: What do you mean by that? Where do you get your information? How do you know you’re right? What happens if you’re wrong? Some interviewers like to ask broad questions: “How is this affecting you? What are some of the things that you enjoy doing? What would you like to see happen?” I’ve found that those tend to evoke overly general answers, so it’s better to ask for superlatives: “What is your most pressing issue? What is one thing you cannot fail to do? What is your greatest concern? For what one thing would you like most to be remembered?”


Do not worry about conversational pauses, unless you are interviewing someone for radio. When the in-person interviewee is not answering your question, just stare at him; eye contact helps to elicit response. Expectant silence is also helpful.

Radio and television have led us to believe that every second of airtime must be filled with talk, but good interviewing (like good professor-student interaction) requires patience. Chattering interviewers tend to blurt out several questions at a time, but that gives subjects the opportunity to dodge the toughest one. Other typical errors include making statements rather than asking questions, and asking yes/no questions. Remember, the goal is to elicit stories, not grunts.

A few more suggestions: Talk little, listen much, and listen for what isn’t said. With a well-known interviewee, wake him up by starting with a question that’s unusual. Watch the interviewee’s body language and make eye contact. Check the spelling of his name, title, and affiliation. Re-ask questions if the content of the answer is significant but the subject offered it in a meandering way. Experienced journalists who are taking notes and need a little more time to record a response don’t worry about pausing—but if you do worry, ask a question that will yield an unimportant response so you can get the exact wording on what was important.


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