Interviewing: Tips From a Pro
Whenever I watch or listen to one of my favorite interviewers—Charlie Rose, Terry Gross, Alison Stewart, or Tavis Smiley—I try to figure out how they do what they do so well. But I have to admit, I usually get so wrapped up in listening to the guest that my curiosity never lasts longer than about three minutes. I think it must have something to do with the talent of the interviewer–the better they are at engaging their interviewee, the less we notice them.
Since I haven’t been disciplined enough to pick up any expert interviewing tips by direct observation, I was excited to recently come across a piece written by Terry Gross. It’s the introduction to her book: All I Did Was Ask: Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists (2005), a compilation of select interviews from her NPR show, Fresh Air. In there she shares some thoughts on interviewing and we find out a little about what it takes to pull off a great interview. I chose a few of her musings that I thought might be relevant to anyone wanting to improve their interviewing skills.
Terry Gross: “I violate many rules of polite conversation in my interviews, even when I’m making every effort to be respectful. I do something I would never do off the air—I interrupt.”
Even though we might want our interviews to feel like natural friendly conversations, that’s not what we’re doing as professional interviewers. Terry reminds us that, unlike being able to graciously walk away from someone who won’t stop talking at a party, that option isn’t available during the interview. “All I have with a guest is an hour tops,” she says, “Which means I have to make every minute count.” As researchers, so do we. If we hesitate to interrupt the dominater or expert who knows more than we need to hear we risk not getting the meaningful data we’re after .
Terry Gross : “I also violate decorum by asking questions of my guests that you usually don’t ask someone you’ve just met, for fear of seeming rude or intrusive.”
Questions that seem personal or invasive to us can be uncomfortable to ask unless we solidly ground ourselves in our purpose for being there. Terry says: “My purpose isn’t to embarrass my guest or make him self-conscious. I’m trying to encourage introspection, hoping for a reply that might lead to a revelation about my guest’s life that might lead, in turn, to a revelation about his art.” Qualitative research is all about gaining depth. That’s why we ask the hard questions.
Terry Gross: “I would never pressure anyone to reveal thoughts and experiences he desires to keep private. The problem is you never know where someone is going to draw the line.”
It’s true. What’s private for one person isn’t for another. I’ve been amazed at what some people will disclose during an interview or focus group—their pregnancy that nobody else knows about or how they really feel about their doctor. Terry suggests we let the interviewee, “set the rules on what’s private and therefore off-limits.” I feel it’s important to establish this upfront and even remind them about it during the interview. Doing so lets our respondent know we respect their privacy while allowing us to question deeply without worrying about going too far.
Terry Gross: “I try to be well prepared for each interview on the assumption that a guest is more likely to share his innermost thoughts with someone he senses has a good grasp of what he’s all about.”
Terry feels that sometimes an interviewee clams up because they fear the interviewer either doesn’t comprehend what they are saying or doesn’t care. To be well prepared, she works straight through the evening each weeknight to prepare for the next day’s interview. I also believe in being well prepared but not so prepared that I’m bored during the interview. I try to get a basic conceptual understanding beforehand but also want to show up curious enough to ask engaging questions.
Terry Gross: “Paradoxically, geographical distance sometimes encourages a greater degree of intimacy.”
Because her interviews seem so personal, I never thought about the impracticality of conducting a lot of them in her Philadelphia studio. Terry actually talks to most interviewees via satellite or digital lines. Many people assume that the best interviews are those done in person. Not so says Terry: “Truth be told it (not being in the same room) often makes it easier. It’s easier to ask a challenging question…and neither I nor my guest have any reason to be self-conscious, as we might be face-to-face.” She claims this is true especially for people who are shy like her. Some people would be shocked to learn that Terry Gross is shy but I happen to believe that some of the best interviewers are introverts and that’s because introverts are naturally better at listening (than extroverts). I have no study to quote and I’m sure there are many fine extroverted interviewers but I do want to support the shy ones interested in becoming interviewers. Just because you’re shy doesn’t mean you wouldn’t be a darn good interviewer. I know plenty who are.