On Interviewing – by Alex Blumberg
In our current discussion with Planet Money’s Chana Joffe-Walt, this question has come up: how do you take charge of an interview? From the Transom Archive, here is Chana’s Planet Money cohort, Alex Blumberg, with a few ideas from his 2005 manifesto.
from Alex Blumberg
When I first started doing radio, I thought that in order to build rapport with my subjects, I should spend 5 or 10 minutes chitchatting with them, off the topic of what I was there to interview them about. But every time it seemed that at the end of the chitchat my subjects were more nervous, not less. I finally figured out why. It was because I wasn’t putting them at ease with my chitchat. Quite the opposite, I was confusing them. From my perspective I was just being, you know, casual, but from their perspective a stranger called them up out of the blue, scheduled an appointment to talk with them, dragged his tape recorder all the way up to their office, just to ask them where’s the best place to get lunch in the area?
In other words, you’re fooling no one. You’re there to do a job, and the sooner you acknowledge it, the better it will go. Don’t pussyfoot. Take control. If they’re sitting across a desk, make them sit next to you. If their phone is ringing see if they can turn it off. Never ever, ever, ever, ever let them hold the microphone. It does NOT make them feel more comfortable. And it just insures that you’ll get mic noise. The more certain you are in your behavior, the more comfortable and relaxed they’ll be in the interview. The weird thing is, once you’ve bossed them around enough in the beginning – made them switch seats, turn off their cell phones, scootch closer so you don’t have to hold the mic way out; in short, all the things you’d wouldn’t do if you were just talking – the more it will sound like a natural conversation in the end. People do forget about the microphone, almost immediately, but only if you acknowledge it in the beginning.
The other very important thing to remember: if they don’t say something the right way the first time, you can go back. People will be stiff. They’ll stumble around. They’ll talk all formal, like they think you want them to talk. They’ll say “this individual” instead of “this guy.” They’ll say, “I was concerned, definitely” instead of “I was freaked out, yo.” You don’t have to let them. Get them to tell it again. Rephrase the question. Stop them and say, “I want you to answer that question again, but this time use the word sad instead of lachrymose.”
How much can you do this? A lot. Witness this tape from an interview NPR reporter John Nielsen did for a story about Avian flu in zoos. During an outbreak, people were afraid to go to zoos because they thought, wrongly, there was a higher risk of catching the disease in a zoo. Nielsen’s interviewing a zoo director, and he just needs the guy to set the record straight, say that zoos actually aren’t any more dangerous than anywhere else. But the guy’s a scientist type and isn’t talking like a real person. We’ll pick up the tape after John’s asked the question a second time, why is it safe to go to the zoo?
Notice, he’s never mean or rude or off-putting. And that’s very important. By bossing people around, I don’t want to give the impression that you should march into people’s offices after they’ve generously agreed to give you time out of their busy day and start making petty demands. But simply to realize what they already understand, you’re there to do a job, and to do it right you need them to follow your lead. You can hear John’s final piece here.
The zoo guy comes in at the very end.