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On Interviewing

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?

Listen to “John Nielsen at the zoo”
Listen to “John Nielsen Cut”

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.

Alex Blumberg’s Transom manifesto

Chana Joffe-Walt’s Transom manifesto

Alex Blumberg

About
Alex Blumberg

Alex Blumberg is a producer for the public radio program This American Life. He has done radio documentaries on, among other things, the U.S. Navy, people who do impersonations of their mothers, and teenage Steve Forbes supporters. His story on clinical medical ethicists won the Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI) award for best radio documentary. Before he made the move to journalism at age 31, he was a middle school science teacher and basketball coach for four years. Highlights include 1995’s electricity science fair when every student’s hand-made, battery-powered electric motor actually worked, and teaching Michelle Ashley to shoot a lay-up. Before that, he was a settlement counselor for Russian refugees in Chicago. He has a B.A. from Oberlin College.

More by Alex Blumberg

Comments

  • Siobhan McHugh

    1.02.11

    I blame karaoke – it made decent quiet folk want to grab the mic! Totally agree about never letting them have it; you become the prisoner of their ramblings rather than the sensitive/curious/probing steerer of the ship.

    Love the clip of the zoo guy. Sometimes it’s like getting blood out of a stone but when you finally tap into the passion ( that I believe everyone has, you just got to work hard to find it sometimes), it’s volcanic. As Studs T said, we’re after the ‘precious metal’.

    Thanks for some great tips, Alex. Rings very true here in Sydney, Australia.

  • palinode

    1.08.11

    Spot on. I used to interview people for a television show, and I discovered after a while that you won’t get the clips you need unless you encourage people and direct them. Sometimes, when an interviewee had trouble summing up or telling a story, I would simply say, “That’s wonderful. Let’s say it like X to really sum it up”.

    The other trick I discovered was to request that they use a particular word or phrase in their answer. For example, if I was interviewing witnesses from a tornado disaster, I’d ask them what they saw but make sure that they used the word ‘tornado’ in their response. They would construct the answer around the word and often deliver a perfect clip in the process.

    I also found that silence could be extremely effective in getting an emotional response. Often people will deliver the canned response first (“I was concerned, definitely”) but if you wait and just stare at them, then they start talking to fill the silence, and that’s when the real stuff starts coming out.

  • Tom Niemisto

    1.17.11

    After a few years experience in radio, I’ve just started producing interviews with video. I’m operating the camera and directing the interview at the same time, and sometimes it’s really hard to get the interviewee relax to talk to ME instead of the camera, when I’m checking the lcd screen every 45 seconds… I make an effort to take my headphones off after levels are set, and make solid eye contact, but I’m on the look out for more tips.

    On the pre interview: one thing that I’ve found really useful (if I have the option) is to meet someone (say, a professor at their office) and then walk with them to a different location or site for the interview. In a recent case I walked with a chemistry professor at his office and walked to his lab and chatted on the way. He was making really great sound bites I knew I wanted him to say again, so I made a mental note of it, then said, “on our way over here you were saying that ——, what did you mean by that?”

    I interview a lot of people about public policy and economics and I’m always looking for ways to bring about interesting answers. It seems like planet money has mastered that. Are there questions that you fall back to if the talking head isn’t giving you the sound you want? or is there a question you always include, like a: “what does this mean for the average person?”