This week, we’re going to talk more about interviewing. There are many different kinds of interviews, and each requires a different way of thinking.
We talked a little already about interviewing people in trauma and how important it is to be sensitive to when and how grieving people want to be interviewed. We talked about asking the hard question, even when we fear that it may spark an emotional response.
Interviewing for other kinds of “quick turn” stories (breaking news) teaches us to envision the completed story in our heads as we interview so we gather all of the essential information and then that specific fact or anecdote that makes the story really funny, interesting, sad or inspiring.
Listen for the lead. If you don’t hear it, work harder. Think: What would the reader most want to know about this? What is the most interesting thing about this issue/person/plan/project/event? Trust your very human gut instinct about that. Then drill down deeper about that thing.
In more relaxed interviews for stories you have more time to create, you will still always need the basics — the facts. Get as many of those as you can out of the way through research and confirmation with the story subject so you can move on to the really good stuff.
What’s the good stuff?
Well, you know it when you’ve got it. And when you don’t (bummer).
I watched Mark Pachter on Ted.com talk about the series of interviews he did with famous people for the National Portrait Gallery and how he realized that there is one question a person always wanted someone to ask him/her. It can be the key that unlocks the door between the interviewer and the subject. Having empathy helped him find that key, he said, especially with the most difficult interview subjects.
He started an interview with the comedian Steve Martin (these were on a stage with a pretty big audience present) by asking him if, like most comedians, he had a terrible childhood.
Martin replied, in some shock, “That’s how you’re going to start this interview?” And then he turned the tables on Pachter. “How was your childhood?”
Pachter recounts that he said it was great. He had a very supportive father. “That’s why I’m not funny,” he offered.
The disclosure and the insight broke the ice, and Martin opened up. It turned out he’d had a pretty awful father. That fact was the source of Martin’s comedy. And the dance of the interview picked up speed and grace.
Was Pachter’s question too nosy? It was gutsy, for sure. It could have backfired if Pachter hadn’t been willing to disclose something about himself. But it worked. You can’t know if you don’t ask. If you didn’t think to ask and wish you had, that’s okay. Ask now. But if you thought to ask and didn’t because it’s not polite, that’s a problem for the story, the reader and, ultimately, the journalist.
So tomorrow we’ll talk about interviewing in breaking news situations, how to prioritize information and “listen for the lead.”